Who is going to carry the ball?

With the two rounds of European Rugby out of the way, focus turns to the November internationals. As usual, a daunting program looms, with South Africa, Australia and Georgia coming to town. Two wins will be the pass mark.

Ireland have injuries aplenty, the two most damaging of which are Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien, unquestionably two of Ireland’s small set of world class players, and crucially, two of their best ball carriers. Ireland have decent replacements for each. Jack McGrath is a stalwart on the loosehead side of the scrum and both Chris Henry was a constant in Ireland’s Six Nations winning campaign, when Ireland were also without O’Brien. Both bring much to the game, but neither can quite replicate the sort of explosive ball carrying and ability to win the contact battle that Healy and O’Brien provide. Leinster’s struggles are probably a reasonable barometer for how hard it is to get momentum without your best carriers available.

The loss of two such warriors is compounded by the loss of Iain Henderson for Ulster, who is the closest thing to O’Brien and Healy in his ability to break tackles, and also Andrew Trimble, who, although a wing, is a strong carrier who has been used to punch holes in the middle of the pitch. Bosh!

The problem is magnified by the fact that Ulster and Munster’s two primary ball-carrying forwards are non-Ireland eligible. Nick Williams is Ulster’s go-to-man for the hard yards (which is quite another issue), while Munster have identified CJ Stander as their best carrier, and his form has been frankly awesome in recent weeks. Do Ireland have enough carriers to make the necessary metres to take the game to Australia, and more problematically, South Africa? Will the lack of Healy and O’Brien force Schmidt into certain selections in his pack? Or in the centres?

We’ve used the ESPN stats from the last two weeks to try and let the stats do the work.

Here’s the file: forwards_metres.  It’s the usual ESPN table format.  The focus here is on columns E to H and T to W, but that’s not to say the players didn’t do other stuff as well!  The guys in red are NIE.

Three things immediately stand out.

  1. Jamie Heaslip is the man. Over the two ERCC games, Heaslip has managed over 40 carries for an aggregate gain over 100m, the full length of a rugby pitch. Heaslip is in outstanding form and will be Ireland’s number eight for all three games. He’s not the most conventional number eight, or the most powerful, but his supreme footwork enables him to avoid the bigger hits and eke out metres where others would be running into a brick wall.  The issue that might arise is against South Africa whose sheer brawn is so suffocating he might not be able to find the space to get a run at soft shoulders.
  2. CJ Stander is the man. As if you need telling. Stander carried for an immense 110m against Sale, and again impressed with 42m with ball in hand against Sale, more than double anyone else in the pack. But he can’t play for Ireland.  Yet.
  3. Ulster have lacked a ball carrier. No Henderson, and Williams struggling; Ulster’s problem is that they have found themselves snaffled on the gainline. Roger Wilson showed up well off the bench against Leicester, but against Toulon no forward made more than 12m, which explains everything about why Ulster lost the game.

Ok, so that’s the obvious stuff, what about the auxiliary carriers, and what might it mean for Ireland

  1. If Heaslip is Leinster’s primary man, Sean Cronin is his lieutenant. Nobody can time a run onto the ball as well as this chap, which enables him to make clean breaks and beat defenders, and his technical deficiencies will continue to be accommodated by O’Connor as long as he can carry for an average of 30m a match. The question is: would Schmidt consider him ahead of Best in order to bolster his cabal of ball-carriers? Best’s lineout throwing has been poor for Ulster, and he has never been an effective carrier, but does bring power to the scrum and an exceptional ability around the ruck. Best would generally be seen as a nailed-on starter and a pack leader, and it would be a brave man to go into trench warfare against South Africa without him, but there may be a case for Cronin based on the current situation.
  2. Tommy O’Donnell is the new Chris Henry. We asked earlier in the season if O’Mahony, O’Donnell and Stander play together, who will hit the rucks? Answer: Tommy O’Donnell. Although a naturally strong carrier, O’Donnell has carried much less than his backrow partners in both games, and has appeared to do so closer to the ruck too. A recent journal.ie interview saw him chatting a lot about his role around the breakdown, slowing down ball, ‘living in the ruck’, and all that. It shows all the hallmarks of someone who has sacrificed his carrying game to do the dirty work; in effect, becoming more like Chris Henry. Which, ironically in this instance, will probably hurt his international ambitions.
  3. Peter O’Mahony offers good value with the ball. We know he likes to operate a bit further from the ruck where he can get his fend going, but O’Mahony’s carrying stats will encourage Schmidt. He made around 20m in each game, and like Sean Cronin was very much lieutenant to the primary ball-carrier. The only player who could realistically take the No.6 jersey from him is Rhys Ruddock, who has had a mixed bag, showing up well against Wasps, with a notable carrying performance, but anonymous in Castres. Throw in O’Mahony’s lineout game and abilty to win breakdown turnovers and he looks fairly nailed on for the jersey, but will probably be used to carry more than in the Six Nations.
  4. Jack McGrath for loosehead. He may not have Cian Healy’s quotient of fast-twitch muscle fibres, but McGrath is a useful carrier, as well as being generally decent in the set piece. He carried over 10m in each game. Both Munster looseheads have shown up better when introduced off the bench, and until one of them (probably Cronin) pulls away from the other, their jostling for position is probably letting McGrath pull the gap out when it comes to national selection.
  5. Paul O’Connell should leave the carrying to others – as has been suggested in certain quarters before,. While it seems churlish to be criticising the great O’Connell for anything, 5m gained over an aggregate 17 carries suggests that O’Connell should probably let O’Mahony, Stander or whichever loosehead is on the pitch have the ball instead. Toner hasn’t exactly been bursting through tackles either, so until Henderson presents himself again in the new year, Ireland can’t expect the second row unit to chip in with many metres. But it was ever thus – and quite often by our own design.

Based purely on individual merits, you’d write down the starting Irish pack as being McGrath, Best, Ross, O’Connell, Toner, O’Mahony, Henry and Heaslip. Schmidt will employ Heaslip as his primary ball-carrier, and ask O’Mahony and McGrath can help him out by chipping in with 20-ish metres each. Is that enough? If not, the case for Sean Cronin and Tommy O’Donnell becomes stronger, particularly for Cronin, though O’Donnell appears to have adapted his role somewhat.

And with a lack of heft in the pack, we need to ask if our preference for midgety centres can be continued – Dorce is decent at making metres after the tackle with his feet, but he isn’t exactly built like Mathieu Boshtereaud. Having someone bigger, like Robbie Henshaw, outside might take some workload off the forward carriers – Jared Payne certainly isn’t going to use opposition players as speed bumps. Any dreams of a second-five-eighth type inside-centre, such as Olding or Madigan, may have to be shelved for the moment.  All this, of course, is compounded by the loss of Trimble – with most of the putative replacements of the dancing-feet variety, we might need to press the square peg of Tommy Bowe into the round hole that is boshing up the middle.

One thing’s for sure: Jamie Heaslip’s going to have have a heavy workload over the next month.


Ulster Struggles

So there ya go – the dream is over. With Ulster’s development in recent years, Ireland have had three names supping at the top table of European rugby – we felt that the provinces were in a good position to replicate last season (and 2012)’s success and have three in the last eight. But, for the first time since 2010, Ulster won’t be there. We haven’t bothered crunching the stats – we’ll leave that to real numbers gurus like Andy McGeady – but we suspect there haven’t been many teams who have made the knockouts after losing their opening two games. After nicking a late bonus point in Welford Road, Ulster couldn’t even repeat that trick at home to Toulon and are now marooned with a single point. Bummer.

Now, losing to Toulon is far from disgraceful – they are European and French champions and produced the first powerhouse performance of the tournament on Saturday, whacking and bagging Ulster by half-time. Losing to this Leicester vintage isn’t so great though, and four wins with a couple of bonus points from here looks an extremely tall order, especially since one of those games is in Toulon.

In a sense, there have been some chickens coming home to roost for Ulster – organisational upheavel this summer, a lack of depth in the pack being exposed by injuries, and curious selection.

When Humph announced he was leaving for Glaws, Ulster rugger went into a state of shock, and it has taken four months for the endgame to play out. First of all, Cowboy was given the heave-ho with Les “Kissy” Kiss coming in on an interim job-share basis to bring his choke tackling expertise, hipster specs and sunny, thoughtful demeanour to Ravers – this was initally announced as a season-long measure. But then the announcement came that Kissy was going back to Carton House full-time and Ulster would shortly name a full-time coach. To no-ones surprise, a few weeks later, that was Neil Doak – with Kissy returning after RWC15 as Nucifor-stamped DoR. All of which ends well for Ulster, but it does mean that the Ulster players have had three head coaches for the 2014/15 season in 3 months – hardly the best preparation for European rugby.

And, although Doak has been around Ravers since, like, forever and has presumably – like the perennial bridesmaid – been preparing to be head coach for half that time, he only got the keys three weeks ago. Now, there can be no doubt he had input into team selection and tactics, so he wasn’t completely green, but having your second and third games as head coach against Leicester and Toulon is far from ideal. From Ulster’s perspective, the succession hasn’t been smooth – the best-managed corporates have a succession plan for everybody that they can put in place when required – Ulster might have got the outcome they wanted, but it took them a while to get there, and preparation undoubedly suffered. Perhaps there was a reason Doak couldn’t have taken over when Cowboy was slung out, with Kiss being lined up as 2015 DoR in time, but we can’t think of a persuasive one. Either way, Ulster have been in a state of organisational flux since June.

Secondly, the team was decimated by injury – or was it? The reality is that they are missing both starting locks  – Dan Tuohy, NWJMB – Ruan Pienaar and Andy Trimble. Pienaar and Trimble are virtually irreplacable but its the pack which has been hardest hit. Note: Alan O’Connor is also suspended, but if you are depending on an Academy player with two starts to rescue you against Toulon, you are in trouble. The reality of the situation is that Ulster’s depth in the pack was a concern 12 month ago and its got markedly worse since:

  • OUT: Tom Court (Prop, 32 caps for Ireland), John Afoa (Prop, 36 caps for BNZ, RWC11 winner), Johann Muller (Lock, 24 caps for SA, RWC07 winner), Fez (Flanker, 35 caps for Ireland, 2009 Lion) plus Niall Annett (Hooker), Adam Macklin (Prop), Paddy McAlister (Prop), Sean Doyle (Flanker)
  • IN: Wiehann Herbst (Prop), Ruadhri Murphy (Prop), Dave Ryan (Prop), Franco van der Merwe (Lock, 1 cap for SA), Charlie Butterworth (Flanker), Sean Reidy (Flanker)

Essentially, Ulster have lost their captain, 2 RWC winners, Ireland’s only player of the professional era aside from POC and BOD to be challenging for a World XV and 127 international caps and replaced them with a couple of wild card props and a once-capped Springbok journeyman. Poor planning, and ordinary recruitment. That’s going to hurt when you come up against a side who can lose Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe after five minutes and replace him with a MOTM contender from last year’s final. Ulster were so stretched, they had to rely on Clive Ross and Nick Williams as crack game-changers from the bench.

That’s a big enough handicap as is, but to find yourself struggling to identify your starting centres is pretty careless. Jared Payne has been the chosen one at outside centre for Ulster (and maybe for Ireland) but it’s fair to say he hasn’t got going there – when Ulster have brought Dazzler Cave into the team and moved Payne back to full-back, they’ve looked immeasurably more dangerous. Against the Tigers, Ulster went for brawn inside in the shape of Stuart McCloskey, but began to create opportunities only when he was replaced with the rapier that is Stu Olding. The against Toulon, it was Olding who started, but even before he got kicked in the head in a scene reminiscent of the Thing That Never Happened, he was being run ragged by Maxime Mermoz (aside: is this a first for anyone else to see Mermoz actually playing well? He has always seemed disappointing any time we have seen him) and Mathieu Boshtereaud.

Which isn’t to say Toulon steamrollered over Ulster – it was the technical brilliance of their pack and centres that won them this game – subtlety was the name of the game in the key moments. That awful feeling of being outclassed came a week after a litany of errors handed a free win to a Leicester Tigers team that subsequently gave the Scarlets (the Scarlets!) an easy win. Ulster have hid it pretty well in the Pro12 to date, but a pair of limp defeats in the rarefied air of the HEC/ERCC has shown them up for being a bit of a mess right now. If Doak didn’t know he had a big job on his hands, he does now.

Brucie Bonus

When you are scrapping for your life ™ in a Pool of Death ™ every point, nay try, can be crucial ©. Yes, amazingly, this particular piece of trite hyperbole is true and undeniable. Both Munster and Ulster are in prickly pools, and the bonus point distribution is very likely to be a key factor in who tops the pool, and whether the runners-up can join them in the next phase.

In both cases, the baseline scenario for the three contenders (Munster, Saracens and Clermont; Ulster, Toulon and Leicester) is:

  • Nine points from the group bunnies (Sale and the Scarlets)
  • Eight points from two home wins against the two good teams
  • Two points from two away defeats against same

coming to a total baseline of 19 points. Axel and Doak will be thinking that if they get 20, they should qualify, but if they end up with 18, they could finish third in the pool. And, of course, if you lose to the bunnies away or any of your home games, you are goosed.  Denying others points is just as important; if Munster can beat Saracens by more than seven points and deny them a bonus, it’s almost as good as an extra match point.

Munster, by the skin of their teeth, are still alive in the tournament – had they not managed their terrific comeback, they could forget about qualification. But manage they did, and the four points effectively means they are par for the course after one round. In their pool, Globo Gym picked up a home win, and, possibly crucially, scored four tries and got a fifth point. That, in effect, puts them a point ahead of the benchmark, edging them ahead of Clermont and Munster in the reckoning. Clermont will be content enough with their losing bp, particularly as they put it up to a team which had embarrassed them and fed them a forty-burger six months ago, and are also level par. The aggregate number of points dished out in the match was six, which is the result Munster would have least enjoyed.  Contrast with Leinster’s pool where Harlequins and Castres received only four points between them.  Slight advantage Saracens after round one.

The other slightly unfortunate news for Munster is that in beating Sale away from home in round one they may simply have softened them up for everyone else.  It’s a scenario Ulster ran into last year.  Beating Montpellier away looked like a pool-defining result, but it only resulted in Montpellier being less than fully commited and allowed Leicester to follow suit a few weeks later.

In Ulster’s pool, it looked like curtains for the Northerners at half-time in Welford Road – the Tigers had three tries on the board (almost a fourth) and a losing bp seemed a long way adrift. Finishing the game on a match score of 4-1 when 5-0 looked odds-on was quite the achievement – 5-0 would have put Leicester two points up on Ulster in the bonus-off, but now both are on par. Both teams will be feeling a bit bummed after the game – Ulster for losing and Leicester for eschewing a chance to get the boot firmly on a group rival’s throat.

In the same pool, Toulon beat the Scarlets but did not get four tries – this was a slight negative for the champions as they would have been expecting a full haul. They are still more than capable of going to the non-fortress that is Parc y Scarlets and running amok, but it ups the pressure a little. Toulon are just off schedule a little, but plenty of time to rectify that.

Next up it’s must-win home games against last years finalists – Munster open round two up against the likeable ruffians of Saracens and Ulster face the uphill struggle that is Toulon at home. Four points each, and they’ll both stay on course for the target of 19.  Deny the opposition a bonus point and it’s better still.  Easier said than done, though.

Naturalised Kiwis? I’ll Take Two

Joe Schmidt pulled a surprise yesterday by announcing his panel for the November internationals a week early. We don’t know what the logic behind the premature announcement is; perhaps he just likes to keep us on our toes, the scallywag.

As invariably happens with these things, the squad is pretty large so talking points are kept to a minimum. The real sniping only really gets going when the team is announced for the first test, so keep your powder dry folks! Nonetheless, with five new caps, 15 injuries and one or two notable omissions there was a bit of information to be gleaned.

Jared Payne has long been earmarked for a role as a naturalised Irishman and his moment has finally arrived. Will he be auditioned for 13, where he still doesn’t appear entirely comfortable, or seen as back-up for Rob Kearney? A test debut seems probable in any case.

Connacht’s Darragh Leader is the beneficiary of both Connacht’s good start to the season and a scattering of injuries in the back three. He’ll be competing with Bowe, Zebo and Gilroy for selection on the wing and at the very least will get valuable exposure.

Dominic Ryan is rewarded for a strong start to the campaign after his career looked to have stalled. He was among Leinster’s better players against Wasps and in the absence of Sean O’Brien and Jordi Murphy, he adds welcome depth.

Munster’s Dave Foley looks a good pick having looked solid throughout Munster’s up-and-down start to the season. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising to see him named on the bench, because Mike McCarthy has looked a bit leaden for Leinster.

Of the five newbies, the biggest impact could be made by another naturalised Kiwi, Nathan White, Connacht’s rock-solid tighthead. With Marty Moore injured, there’s every chance he will leapfrog Stephen Archer and maybe even Rodney Ah You, who somehow remains in the panel, to perform the sizeable role of seeing out the match after Mike Ross collapses from exhaustion.

Elsewhere, the main talking point was Paddy Jackson’s omission. Schmidt has left out the Ulsterman in favour of Ians Madigan and Keatley. It’s a form call and one imagines if it was tight in the first place, this weekend’s events may have been the decisive pendulum-swing. While Keatley was being lauded for his drop goal heroics, Jackson rather summed up Ulster’s night in Leicester with a lackadaisical conversion which was charged down. It’s a very definite boot up the arse for Jackson, who will be well aware that in a World Cup year, one of he, Keatley and Madigan will find themselves squeezed out of the touring party. Get your game face on fella, starting this weekend against Toulon.

One player a shade unlucky to miss out is Duncan Casey. His lineout stats are unmatched in Europe this year, and neither Cronin nor Best are exactly technicians, so he would have dovetailed nicely. Richardt Strauss hasn’t done anything of note this season, but clearly Schmidt is a fan. Also missing out is Darren Cave, whose ship appears to now have sailed. Squeezed onto the bench at Ulster having failed to take his chance with Ireland this summer, it looks like other options will be explored.

There was better news for Tommy O’Donnell who is recalled. The Tipp man hasn’t quite hit the barnstorming heights of his early 2013 form, but he is at least out of the doldrums of last season. Another player who has been on the same up-down-up trajectory is Craig Gilroy, who looks back to something like the razor-sharp runner who stunned Argentina in one of the most memorable test debuts in living memory. Both play in positions with notable absentees and have a chance to stake a claim.  Now gentlemen, no more injuries, please.  Pretty please.  With sugar on top.

The Unstoppable Rise of Darragh Fanning

Darragh Fanning has started every game for Leinster this season, and on Saturday night his Leinster career hit new heights, as he scored two tries in his first European Cup match. He’s living the dream. Initially signed to plug a gap while players were injured and unavailable, with a glut of players still injured, he’s becoming a fixture in the team. Expect to see plenty more of him this season.

Fanning, or ‘Fanj’ as he’s known, is 28 years old and so qualifies as a late bloomer. A productive winger for St Mary’s at AIL level, he spent a season at Connacht before returning to the club game, then Leinster came calling. If you had told Leinster fans that he would be starting a European match a year ago, they probably would have laughed. But here he is, and with two tries to his name. It’s as many as Irish international wing Dave Kearney managed in the whole of last season.

There’s a tendency on the terraces and in internet fora to be a bit sniffy about players who arrive at the top level via this path – and before we’re accused of pointing fingers, we’re happy to admit some culpability ourselves. We talked recently about the hipster’s choice players; guys like Fanj are really the anti-hipster’s choice. They scream ‘journeyman’, and nobody ever gets excited about that.  How skilful can they be if they were languishing in the AIL for most of their mid-20s? The accepted way for players to get to the pro ranks in Ireland is via the academy structures. When a player arrives in the first team, freshly minted by the academy, hipster ‘do’ rendered just-so, there is an innate desire to proclaim him the next big thing. When someone is brought in to ‘do a job’ from the AIL it’s a case of ‘meh’.

Demented Mole has written about the topic, and noted that the sole route to professionalism via the academy has its flaws in that it favours those who are physically developed at a young age, and others who have potential but may not have the same physical development by the time they’re 18 can slip through the net. Brendan Macken has always had the look of someone who became a campus hero because he could steamroll other schoolkids, but never developed the skills to thrive against better, stronger players.

It’s very different in France, and to an extent in England, where there is a second-tier professional league which is an ideal breeding ground for youngsters, and the smaller clubs often act as feeders to the Top 14 sides. It means more players who may be unheralded in their youth at least find a home in the second division or at one of the smaller Top 14 sides, rather than slipping out of the professional game; and if they do manage to bloom later in their careers, they can find themselves elevated to the top level. Morgan Parra started life at Bourgoin; Vincent Clerc had four years at Grenoble. There are umpteen Irish plugging away in both ProD2 and the English Championship, while scrum half Jambo Hart has found himself elevated to the Top 14 and is dining out on great reviews with high-flying Grenoble.

Other players to make the upgrade from AIL to pro in recent(-ish) years are Craig Ronaldson at Connacht and the pick of the bunch, James Coughlan who proved a stalwart for Munster after his belated elevation, and currently finds himself earning a last-of-the-summer-wine payday with Pau in the ProD2.  Coughlan proved so effective that some excitable fans thought he should displace Jamie Heaslip from the Irish team. Whether Fanning can become such a cause celebre for Leinster remains to be seen, but for the moment his progress continues. The thought of him going up against Christian Wade was mildly terrifying, but there’s more to rugby than screeching pace. Wade scored a brilliant try, but Fanning scored two and Leinster won the match. He will never be able to do some of the things Wade does but there are plenty of things Wade isn’t great at that Fanning is pretty good at, like clearing rucks etc. *genuflects in front of framed Joe Schmidt picture*.  That’s rugby for you, it takes all sorts.


Anglo-Irish Rivalry

Since 2007, when Leicester lost to Wasps in an all-English Heineken Cup final, the Irish have lorded it over the arrogant English © Gervais de Thornleille – four tournament victories to none, five finalists to three and ten semi-finalists to six … all from approximately half the tournament representation. The perceived advantage in qualification enjoyed by the three major Irish provinces was one of the drivers of the ERCC setup (even though it’s bollocks – under any qualification rules, the three would have cruised through in most seasons).

This weekend, all three provinces played English opponents – and they struggled mightily. The combined half-time score was 62-21 to the Premiership – an average of 21-7, although it should be noted that it was a very blustery weekend and in each case the English teams had the wind at their backs in the first half. In the second halves, all three Irish teams came out and fought for their lives in the tournament and began to show something like the quality we all think they have – Leinster and Munster eked out wins over Wasps and Sale, and Ulster got close enough to earn a bonus point and leave Leicester somewhat worried and mildly panicky. Combined, the score was 71-70 to les Anglais. Two of the three games were played in England, but still, this wasn’t by any means the cream of this year’s Boshiership season – the English teams stand 5th, 8th and 10th. Or in other words, the same berths occupied by Connacht, Embra and Cardiff in the Pro12 – none of whom are gracing this years HEC.

This was hardly an outstanding weekend from the provinces, and it really felt like muscle memory keeping them in it at times – BT Sport might be over-anxious to sell this as a brand-new tournament, but the provinces’ collective history and experience certainly told at times when there was a prospect of wipeout.

A quick word on each.  Munster were able to use the wind to good effect in the second half and Sale just couldn’t get out of their own half.  Any platform they did get, they found Peter O’Mahony and Dave Foley all over their lineout ball.  And in CJ Stander they have found a wrecking ball.  This was a performance for the ages, he just could not be contained.  At times he looked to be going into contact too upright, but is just so strong he could keep going.  Remarkable!  They still have a problem at centre though.  Hurley’s up-and-down season hit a trough here, and JJ Hanrahan’s nicely angled kick to the corner late in the match showed his contrasting style in a good light.  Also, Simon Zebo seems a little out of sorts?

Three yers ago, Ulster lost in Welford Road and showed no cutting edge whatsoever, and got beaten.  Those days are certainly gone, and Ulster now boast a backline capable of the sort of try that Tommy Bowe dotted down on Saturday night.  With such potency behind the pack, they’ll be annoyed they gave Leicester a three try start in the match.  Coupled with Jackson’s conversion blooper, it felt like an Ulster performance that only got to 90% intensity; never enough to win in a ground like Welford Road.  Still, they’re alive in the pool, but must beat Toulon this weekend.

As for Leinster, they were the only one of the three at home, but this was another bounty of handling errors and tear-your-hair-out stuff from them.  It’s becoming the default.  Injuries are a mitigating factor and once the team was announced sans Messrs. Kearney and Ross, this had the potential to be a banana skin.  Again, they dug themselves out of a corner, and used the wind to decent effect in the second half.  Amid the injury crisis, Dom Ryan and Darragh ‘Fanj’ Fanning have stepped up admirably this season, and continued that streak here.

There is no doubt the delight we take in beating English teams, and we find it hard to really rate them – perhaps they are better than we think… and perhaps we aren’t as good as we think we are.  Next week, things get dialled up a notch as Munster face Saracens.  The last installment of this rivalry was a damp squib, but a repeat is unlikely.  We’ll have a fair idea of where everyone stands afterwards.

Get Back To Us After Round Five

Amid the turbulent birth of the new tournament, much has been made of the supposedly more competitive pools the new 20-team format has thrown up. As has become customary, it’s an argument that’s only half-true, and one which supporters of Bruce Craig and his chums are keen to stretch to its limits.

On the face of it, there is certainly at least some truth to it. Missing in action, in effect, are Edinburgh, Zebre, Connacht and Cardiff, none of whom are exactly heavyweights who would have much expectations of making the knockout stages.

But a closer look at last year’s results reveals that all bar the hapless Zebre made a significant splash in the competition.

  • Cardiff finished second in their pool with three wins, including being the only team to beat Toulon in the competition
  • Edinburgh managed three wins too, a big one at home to Munster and even a rare win on the road, against Gloucester
  • Connacht also managed three wins, including one of the most remarkable results in the history of the competition, away to Toulouse – admittedly the other two wins were against the Zebras, and they got fed a brutal 58-burger by Globo Gym. But they still beat Toulouse away!

Indeed, the worst performers in the competition, outside of the Italians, were a surprisingly useless Ospreys, Perpignan, who went on to be relegated from the Top 14, and Racing Metro, all of whom could muster just one win each. Ospreys and Racing Metro are back this year (and to be fair, are expected to do much better this time around – helped by being in the same pool as Treviso!) while Perpignan have been replaced, in effect, by Wasps, who won the playoff to be the 20th team.

The truth of the matter is that the pool stages have not been as exciting in the last three years, with most pools more or less decided going into round six, and relatively little at stake in the final week; even the running order of the top eight seemed largely pre-ordained. We wrote a piece about this back in January. In fact, the pools were so easy to predict, even we could get seven quarter-finalists right in our preview for last year, and don’t really expect a mid-tier team to make a run from the pack this time around either.

So will the pools be more competitive this year? Squeezing the talent from six pools into five should have an impact, but it is up to the middle-tier teams to show that they can take enough points to put the top seeds under pressure. In the article linked above we noted that the lack of round six hoopla was not so much down to the likes of Zebre being completely useless, but the fact that the second-tier teams haven’t been good enough to put pressure on the top dogs by accumulating enough points over the full six weeks.  The ‘more competitive’ argument appears to make a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes a pool competitive: it’s how closely matched the top two or three teams in the pool are, not how far off the next rung the fourth team is.

Last year, Gloucester were a hopelessly inadequate opponent for Munster, while Harlequins and Montpellier took an almost laissez-faire approach to the tournament. Northampton had their day in the Palindrome, but were too hot-and-cold over six rounds. Toulon, Toulouse, Leinster and Clermont breezed through their groups without great pressure from beneath. Munster and Toulon could even afford to throw in ridiculous defeats and still qualify with a round to spare. This year, it is up to the likes of Harlequins, Wasps, Bath, Montpellier, Racing Metro and Sale Sharks to show that they are genuinely more competitive and can make the likes of Gerry Thornley, and ourselves, eat our words.

The proof of the pudding will of course be in the eating and after round five, we will return to assess just how much is at stake in the final round, and judge accordingly. Having four less teams does mean one thing – genuine knock-out rugby starts early – by our reckoning last year, once Ulster beat Montpellier away (14th December), the eight quarter finalists were essentially decided. This time around, we’d be stunned if Clermont-Saracens and Ulster-Leicester aren’t relevant in the last round- and the fixtures on the first day already feel must-not-lose for the Tigers and Sarries. And if Munster’s pool is decided by any greater margins than a post-41,000-phase-86th-minute-bonus-point try against Sale, set against the backdrop of a weeping RTE commentary team, we will be disappointed.

Whatever about more competitive pools, one thing that certainly hasn’t changed is the wildly unbalanced nature of the pools.  Pools 1 and 3 are crammed full of talent and the rest are decidedly bantam-weight by comparison.  The newly domestic-based seeding system, based on one year’s domestic results, where Glasgow found themselves in the top pot and Toulouse in the bottom one, is undoubtedly responsible.  The short-term nature of the seeding is the polar opposite of the generously long-term nature of the previous system, whereby Biarritz maintained a perma top seed status (right from the first ranking-driven draw in 2008-09) due to a couple of finals and being drawn with Aironi/Zebre every year – until they dropped out entirely because they were hopeless. We’re not clear on whether this seeding system will persist or whether the performances in the European competition will count towards the seedings of future tournaments.  Anyone?

New Broom

As Gerry might say, plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose. The brand-new European rugby tournament is here, and it’s … err .. completely different. For example, it’s got a better TV deal – oh no, wait, just a French domestic one and a UK/Ireland one where fans aren’t sure what package they need to see their team on a given week – ok, more commercial clout – wait, off that, same sponsor – better governance? – same staff, but in non-cowboy country – well, that’s something. Phew!

On field, we’re down from 24 to 20 teams, having chopped some of the chaff (Connacht, Cardiff, Embra and the Zebras) and that’s no bad thing. We’ve been left with a couple of stonking pools (1 and 3) but, to be fair, there are also a couple of duds in there (2 and possibly 4). We still see three teams as going oh-from-six (Treviso, Scarlets and Sale) and three others as having essentially no chance of progression (Wasps, Castres, Racing Metro) – meaning an expected knockout stage lineup as very similar to the last couple of years. We reckon you’ll have 6 of last years quarter finalists back in April for the runoff and, presumably much to McCafferty’s chagrin, three of them will be Irish! Whoop-de-whoop. So here goes this year’s flight of fancy (or maybe not, we got seven right last year):

Pool 1 (Globo Gym, Munster, Clermont, Sale Sharks):

Three of last year’s four semi-finalists – this is one tough pool. Saracens and Clermont are top of their respective leagues, and Munster will need all of their fabled Europan cup nous to get out of this one.  When two of the three met last year, Saracens made mincemeat of Clermont, winning by 40 points. That could be relevant here as Clermont are not the strongest mentally. It’s hard to see the Sharks winning a game – they are languishing in the Boshiership and are a clear level below the rest. They aren’t an intimidating presence, even at home, and are bonus point fodder. This could easily see the big three trade home wins with two qualifiers decided by bonus points. Saracens look to have the best recent history here (runners up in HEC and Premiership last year) and are the easiest to back as the most likely to win at Munster or the Marcel Michelin. After that, if it came down to a Munster vs Clermont HEC-off in front of teary, rabid  fans, we’d back Munster. Just.

Prediction: Saracens to win (70% confidence level), Munster to qualify as runners-up (50.01% confidence level)

Pool 2 (Leinster, Castres, Harlequins, Wasps):

An utter dud of a pool – Leinster are playing like drains and struggling with a gameplan, on-pitch direction and a lengthy injury list. If they had Munster’s draw, we’d give them virtually no chance of making it through, but they don’t – they have a bit of a gimme. Castres are in the Top14 nether regions, and rarely give a hoot about Europe, and Wasps will be playing in front of zero fans and are reliant on Andy Goode – those two are out. Quins have something about them and are a tough nut to crack at the Stoop, but it’s hard to see them doubling up on the bunnies. They haven’t quite pushed on since their glorious championship-winning season, though any team with Danny Care and Nick Evans at half-back has to be at least useful.  If Leinster can win in Castres in round two then they are on the path.  Where Quins will be dangerous is in the race for second place against Munster – if they win four games, they’ll be in the mix – the brave and the faithful should be cheering full-throated for a pair of Leinster whuppings. Leinster may not hit top gear but they have the experience to deal with this lot.

Prediction: Leinster to win (95% confidence level)

Pool 3 (Toulon, Leicester, Ulster, Scarlets):

Pool of death! Scarlets are the bunnies here – they are <insert patronising platitude here> but are beatable at home and consider defence optional. They are capable of pulling one outrageous win out of the bag, but we’re expecting them to be whitewashed.  Of the three remaining, one are double European and reigning Top14 champions, one have been bridesmaids so many times they are in danger of becoming the Northampton Saints, and one are an injury-addled shadow of their former selves. Toulon are deservedly tournament favourites, and they are unlikely to become unstuck here – they could field two teams that would win this pool, and are good enough to beat anyone. We have covered Ulster already, and first up is the best time to play Leicester away – Barnesy feels Ulster are tournament dark horses, and they have enough tough wins in the European locker (Leicester home and away, Montpellier away, Clermont home, Saints away, Munster away) to warrant some faith here. They have shown themselves adept at getting through the pool stages, but have lost their heads in knockout games with exasperating frequency.  Time to deliver, boys.

Prediction: Toulon to win (80% confidence level), Ulster to qualify as runners-up (70% confidence level)

Pool 4 (Glasgow, Montpellier, Ooooooooooooooooooooooooohhh Bath, Toulouse)

This is a very interesting pool – unlike the previous three, there is no standout team here, and you can make a coherent case for each to qualify. The least coherent case is probably the Montpellier one – they are down a couple of forwards from two years ago, and Francois Trinh-Duc is out until 2015 – they gave up on the HEC after losing to Ulster at home last year, and might not be bothered. We’d dearly love to tip Glasgow to make the breakthrough – great for the Pro12 and a very likeable team addicted to high-risk, watchable rugby – but they have three tough away games ahead, and we can’t quite bring ourselves to back them in any of them. Potential is there, and the pool is up for grabs, but they’ll need to show us something new. Bath are flying high-ish in the Boshiership, marshalled by the quicksilver George Ford, but one feels dirty mucky French packs won’t quite be to their liking – they looked primed to be arm-wrestled out of it. Which leaves European aristocrats ™ boring bosh merchants Toulouse. Which team will show up – the one who beat Saracens twice, or the one who lost at home to Connacht and bent the knee in Thomond? Either way, they have the quality in their squad and consistent experience of just topping the pool to prevail here.

Prediction: Toulouse to win (60% confidence level)

Pool 5 (Northampton Saints, Racing Metro, Hairsprays, Treviso)

Let’s start with the easy bit – Treviso won’t win a game. The Saints look the best team here – they (finally) won the Premiership last year and are riding high again – in the last three years, they have come unstuck against Irish teams at home, this time around the draw is kinder and a quarter-final beckons. For the runners-up slot and (we reckon) the last place in the knockouts it’s red-hot young fearless Ospreys, with a pair of excellent halves, versus behemoth bosh-heavy moneybags Racing Metro. The Parisians are without Jonny Sexton for the opening rounds, and are really tough to have any confidence in – we’d like the Spreys to continue their recent form and get back to the knockout stages.  Backing them to transfer their Pro12 form to Europe has been a losing trade in recent years, but maybe this time it will be different?

Prediction: Saints to win (90% confidence level), Ospreys to qualify as runners-up (70% confidence level)

So there you have it – out go Leicester and Clermont and in come the Saints and the Ospreys. The group winners are mucking in for the all-important home draw – and without knowing who has that prize in the bag, or the home semi-final draw, picking winners is a fools errand. We will say this though, given the Saints pool, and the guaranteed 10 points from Benetton, they will expect a home draw – and they are a decent bet at 13/2.

Stop Press: Ulster Optimism

This particular Ulster fan is feeling pretty chipper right now. That’s right – chipper! And it’s very unlike him – normally he worries about Ulster’s lack of depth in the front five, Paul Marshall being near the first XV, Jared Payne running the defensive alignment and (especially) when dishy Steve Walsh will next referee his province. Dreamboat.

But there are grounds for hope, and more than that, what with the HEC cranking into gear soon:

  1. He worried incessantly about the wisdom of replacing both props in one summer. Now, he maintains it was a risk, but he can’t argue that things aren’t looking good. On the loosehead side, Andrew Warwick looks more powerful every time he plays – he looks a real find. Maybe he’s not ready for HEC rugby, but why not? He seems able. On the tighthead side, Wiehann Herbst has been a revelation, turning Ulster’s scrum into a real platform – John Afoa has not only not been missed, but he has given Ulster fans a chance to wallow in some glorious schadenfreude at his travails at Glaws
  2. Let’s not talk about the second row, bar saying Alan O’Connor played well on his debut and Franco van der Werve better not get injured in the next three weeks
  3. Ruan Pienaar has arrived back at Ravers! Ulster simply must get him on the pitch next weekend, or they are goosed
  4. Stuart Olding has picked up where he left off 15 months ago and looks in spectacularly good nick – Ulster missed a bit of guile in the opposition 22 under Cowboy, and they look to have added clinicality – Olding is a big part of that

But, more, much more than that, its the horrendous start to the season endured by the Leicester Tigers that has this Ulster fan feeling so chipper – the HEC (for that is what it is) starts in nine days, and it starts in Leicester. If ever there was a time to play the Tigers its now, and Ulster already have experience of playing there – and winning.

Those of us who love rugby, and love ye olde school English clubs, love the Leicester Tigers, but unfortunately for them, everyone is injured.  The pack is missing several most of their best forwards, including the Toms Young and Croft and the unfortunate Dan Cole.  That leaves them with a pack anchored by the same Italians that have been tearing up the Six Nati … wait, that’s wrong … and Big Bad Brad Thorn, who finally seems done. Leicester are renowned for tough uncompromising forward play, but it’s just not as frightening when your pack enforcers are .. er .. Graham Kitchener and Julian Salvi. And giving this team direction from 10 is Freddie Burns, who is now a fully paid-up member of the English out-halves who looked decent for three months then collapsed in a pile of dung club, which is chaired by Ryan Lamb and Shane Geraghty.  Way to let the next England fly-half go off to Ooooooooohh Bath, goys! Also missing is Ooooooooooooooooooooohhh Manu Tuilagi – the anchor of their backline.

They lie just above the Boshiership relegation zone and their form is dismal. Here are their results this season:

  • Leicester 36-17 Newcastle
  • Exeter 20-24 Leicester
  • Bath 45-0 (NIL) Leicester (Videprinter moment)
  • Leicester 19-22 London Oirish
  • Gloucester 33-16 Leicester

Sure, Ulster might have lost to the Zebras, but they made 10 changes for that game, had a guy sent off and still probably should have won. And they weren’t at home. To London Oirish. Make no mistake, this is a winnable game. Eminently winnable. Its literally the best possible time to play in Welford Road.

After that, it’s the big one, double champions Toulon – this is a toughie, especially with injuries in the second row – Bakkies and Ali Williams don’t cost megabucks for nothing. Still though – Ulster are at home, and Ravers is a bit of a fortress these days, and a sizzling atmosphere a la Saracens last year is guaranteed. Not that that will phase Toulon of course – despite what Gerry might think, there is little the Irish can teach the French about culture, passion or roaring hot rugby grounds. Toulon’s away form has improved this year (3 wins from 4), but they lost their opening HEC away game last year – to Cardiff, of all teams!  Toulon might travel with the sense that a losing bonus point is a decent outcome.

It is unlikely to be a classic, but Ulster are a tough nut to crack in Ravers, and it will be tight. If Ulster can eke out two wins, that would be eight points on the board with a double header with the Scarlets to come – and with three from five runners-up qualifying, they will have got themselves into an excellent position. Ulster have qualified from tougher pools – notably 2011/12 with Clermont and Leicester when Clermont were at or around the peak of their powers (and Leicester, again, succumbed to an injury crisis) and Ulster are much improved since then. They went 6-for-6 last year, winning in Montpellier and Leicester, and have enough about them to justify some faith – we’re tipping them to win both and take a giant leap to the knockout stages of the inaugural HEC.  How’s that for glass-half-full Nordie Optimism?!

The Slow Fade

Rugby careers come to an end in one of two ways; through injury, or on occasion, on a player’s own terms. Cases of the former are increasingly rare. Ronan O’Gara and – just about – Brian O’Driscoll are two appointed a retirement date and quit. The list of recent retirements through injury – serveral in their recent 20’s, others more fortunate to have had a longer career, is lengthy.

One thing notable about O’Driscoll and O’Gara is that they went out at the top. Ok, Radge had lost his place in the Ireland team, but there was no shame in that, and his swansong was a top-tier match (and performance) against Clermont Auvergne in a Heineken Cup semi-final. BOD’s last outing was in a Pro12 final and he was in the national team to the last breath.

Plenty of others have a final season in which they ‘wind down’ their career. Leo Cullen and Mal O’Kelly retreated to the role of first reserve in their final season and appeared to perform sort of ‘handover’ role.

One player who sadly won’t be going out at the top is Donncha ‘Stakhanov’ O’Callaghan, Ireland’s joker in the pack, who once pulled down Ian McGeechan’s trousers while on the Lions tour. When Saturday’s team was announced journeyman Billy Holland was selected on the bench behind O’Connell and Foley, depriving fans of the chance to see O’Callaghan’s windmilling technique on the touchline. If Ryan were fit, it means O’Callaghan would conceivably be fifth on the depth chart. But this is no final wind-down season for Stakhanov. He has a contract until 2016; he signed the contract in late 2013 when he was still in or around the Irish set-up (though it is a Munster contract and not a central one, whatever that really means).

It must be a strange time for the player, who has been there and done it all; 94 Ireland caps, played all games in the grand slam, four caps for the Lions (where he famously pulled down Ian McGeechan’s trousers), two Heineken Cup wins with Munster … but most recently found himself lining out for Munster A, where last weekend he packed down alongside Sean McCarthy and took on Tom Denton and Gavin Thornbury of Leinster A. At least they won 18-8, which is something I suppose.  What must it be like for a player who has scaled such heights, played in the biggest of games, to find himself overlooked for Billy Holland and playing with the A’s?  That’s show business for you.  One day, you’re the most important guy who ever lived.  The next day, you’re some schmo working in a box factory.

While it’s natural to wonder whether O’Callaghan is the most expensive fifth-choice lock in world rugby, it’s also hard not to feel some sympathy for the once stalwart lock whose decline has been inexorable. By all accounts, O’Callaghan is a hard worker and a good character and not one to feel sorry for himself – after all, this is the man who pulled Ian McGeechan’s trousers down on the Lions tour. And to be fair to the old dog, he adapted surprsingly well to Penney’s second-rows-on-the-wing tactics.  He can’t be faulted for effort, or trouser-removing japery, but theold energy levels just aren’t there, and he doesn’t have much else to fall back on. The chances of an Indian summer feel slim, and it looks like a long, slow fade out to Donncha O’Callaghan’s career.

Also, did we mention that he once pulled down Ian McGeechan’s trousers on the Lions tour?