Grim Oop North. And out East.

Ulster and Leinster face mounting problems as the season enters its next phase.

Leinster simply can’t get a thing going right now and have to face down Harlequins in the biggest two weeks of the season to date. They enter this critical double header with no form whatsoever to speak of. The injury list is much improved from where it was in October, with a number of players recently returning to the fray, but that will count for little if they continue to play with such a high error count and reductive gameplan as they have shown this season, up to and including Saturday’s tedious 18-12 defeat of a depleted Ospreys team.

At the risk of going all cause-celebre, the only hope-against-hope of seeing Leinster put some attacking rugby together is if they can reunite Reddan and Ian Madigan at halfback, but Madigan’s participation is in doubt after he failed to emerge after half-time on Saturday. Not, of course, that O’Connor would be of a mind to start him in any case. If he was planning to, surely this would have been the game in which to give them a rare run together? Matt O’Connor seems wedded to Jimmy Gopperth at 10, even though Gopperth’s form is pretty awful at the moment.

The selection of Gopperth had its critics last year, but to be fair to O’Connor, Gopperth was the man in form while Madigan looked to be forcing things, so it made a degree of sense, even if it wasn’t popular. This year, though, it’s baffling, because Gopperth just isn’t playing well. He looks short on confidence and has failed to launch anything resembling a cohesive backline all season. Madigan, meanwhile, is more like his old self, and comes off a positive November series for Ireland. Alas, it has come to the stage where it feels as if he simply doesn’t have the trust of his coach. On Against the Head last Monday, Matt O’Connor took the opportunity to be a bit sniffy about Madigan’s chances as a test centre. ‘He’s been playing there for us’, he remarked before asking ‘Is he a test centre?’, leaving the question open but implying that he didn’t think so. Curious behaviour from his head coach. In Munster, Axel Foley is only too keen to talk up the test credentials of his players.

Meanwhile, it’s grim oop north. Ulster almost snatched a victory in Thomond Park, but it would have been fortuitous to the point of bizarre had they done so. They’re more or less out of Europe, and should be refocusing on capturing long-overdue silverware by way of the Pro12. As such, the next couple of weeks aren’t that important, but it’s hard to see how they can compete for anything right now, such is the calibre of their pack. With Henry, Henderson and Tuohy all injured, they’re without most of their best forwards right now. Tuohy is likely to return for Saturday, and will provide some relief, as will Ruan Pienaar, but the reliance on rookie centre Stuart McCloskey as the teams primary carrier is far from ideal.

The team is lacking both aggression and effective carriers in the pack, as their go-to-men for the hard yards are failing them. Roger Wilson has never quite looked the player who was so consistent in Northampton’s surge to the 2011 Heineken Cup final and unfortunately Nick Williams is a busted flush. Williams was hugely effective at Pro12 level in his first season at Ulster, but his performances have receded badly since then. It all leaves Robbie Diack looking like their best loose forward, by a country mile. It’s a far cry from the Ferris-Henry-Wannenbosh unit that was so effective in 2012. Modern teams can win without scrum or lineout dominance (Exhibit A: Ireland), but if they lose the backrow battle, they are in trouble – it’s hard to see how Ulster can construct a coherent unit from their current fit options. On Tuohy’s return, to get their best players on the pitch, could they press-gang Franco van der Merwe (not exactly pulling trees up at the moment) into the blindside and put Diack at 8? But then who plays openside? Neither Reidy or Ross look the business, and Roger Wilson at 7 offends all sorts of principles about the role of an openside. Chances are they’ll persevere with Williams and Wilson and put Diack at 7.  As we moaned at the beginning of the season, patchy recruitment in recent years is starting to bite.

Tough times, but if they can keep ticking over until after the Six Nations, they might have enough left in the tank, and some of their important players back, for a big push for the pot. They’re still at the right end of the Pro12 so there’s no immediate concern. Not so for Leinster however. We gave Matt O’Connor a bit of a free pass last season, working on the assumption that he was bedding down his systems and that greater fluidity in attack would follow. But if anything they’ve gone backwards this season. The next two weeks will reveal a lot.

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40 Comments

  1. Munstermicko

     /  December 1, 2014

    If they lose to quins in the back to backs could the Ladies go all Wendyball and boot out MOc out mid season Moyles style?

    Quins are about as effective as a bullock in a feild of cows but the way Leinster are I can see them losing at least one of these matchs.

  2. It looks as if there was no contingency at all in place for the long running will/won’t Stephen Ferris return to fitness saga. Losing Ferris should have provided Ulster justification to bring in a top class back row but maybe this is easier said than done.

    There needs to be some mention of the coaching in Ulster’s case as well. Ulster seems to be playing tactics similar to Ireland – if you are in your own half, then hoof the ball into the air – but without the personnel to actually do this effectively.

    • Ulster’s biggest problem year-on-year has probably been building depth at 9, 10 and 7.

      9: Pienaar has had a strangehold and while Marshall has had good spells, he hasn’t really done the business and seems to tend to need a run of games to build confidence which just doesn’t happen when Pienaar is fit.
      10: Not totally our own fault, as iHumph *did* somewhat take his ball when he fell behind PJ, but our record until this season of getting a backup (NOC, McKinney, shifting Pienaar out) hasn’t exactly been great.
      7: Could feasibly apply to all the back row, but the fact that we haven’t gotten a decent back-up for Henry is mad to me.

      The overriding factor in all the above is that Ulster have always been pushing for silverware, but haven’t been trusting people outside of their bonefide starters to perform. If Pienaar is fit, he plays without exception. If PJ is fit, he’s played without exception.

      Ironically enough a few of the pretenders that we’ve unceremoniously discarded after one season (two at most) have gone on to perform pretty well at the end of their Ulster stints (particularly McKinney and Doyle against Munster at the end of last season) and do decent stuff in their destinations (McKinney has orchestrated two rather thumping wins over the Ravens, for example. I don’t really know too much about the Titans/Ravens respective strengths, but its still a rather nice way to flip off your old team)

      If you look at Glasgow these days and Leinster at their peak, they both have sizeable squads and rotate players at will. It may not be a terribly popular opinion, but Ulster may want to sacrifice silverware for another season in order to build up their squad depth in these areas and others (hooker comes to mind, Rory isn’t getting any younger).

  3. I came away from the RDS on Saturday night angry and frustrated. Our game plan if you can call it that was to aimless kick away possession (something we’ve done all season) and this wasn’t just down to Gopperth. We struggled to retain possession when running the ball and no longer look capable of building phases. Crabman Gopperth played exactly as expected and really offers nothing at the moment. He can’t release the back line, tends to throw hospital passes rather than take the tackle himself 9 times out of 10 and his inside pass has become more predictable than JSexs loop around. The one half decent break he did make came to nothing as the receiver of his pass was wrapped up potentially before the ball reached him although this is a margin call.
    The worst part of the evening for me though was with less than two minutes to go we won a penalty straight in front of the posts by destroying the hairsprays scrum, which we’d done a few minutes earlier as well. Rather than opt for the scrum there by winding down the clock and potentially forcing a penalty try and in so doing deny Ospreys a valuable bonus point we choose to kick the penalty. This to me suggests a sickening lack of vision. Regardless of Madigans availability I expect O’Connor to persist with Gopperth to the end of the season barring injury and I’m not even sure that would stop MOC. End Rant (for now).

    • Leinsterlion

       /  December 1, 2014

      MOC plainly has something against Madigan, no other reason for him to persist with Gopperth, and persist he will, we will sink with Gopperth at the helm, the course is set.

      • Riocard O Tiarnaigh

         /  December 1, 2014

        I hope for the best, but it’s sure looking it’s gonna pan out like that. Bring on Girve the Swerve as head coach A.S.A.P!!!!!

    • aoifehamill

       /  December 2, 2014

      I had some heated discussions about this on Sat evening. I thought they should have gone for the scrum as well but there are definitely good arguments for going for the kick – mainly that anything can happen in the scrum and if unlucky/sloppy Leinster could have lost the game. Then we’d all be bitching about what morons they are. So… despite agreeing with you at the time, I think “a sickening lack of vision” is a bit dramatic on this point. All that said, Leinster were dire – whatever they’re doing at the moment isn’t working – fingers crossed all the other players coming back at the weekend make a big impact.

  4. I don’t think your pessimism regarding Ulster is justified. They have a double dead rubber against Scarlets, followed by an over-rated Ospreys team who’ll have had a much rougher fortnight against Racing, followed by a (semi-)opposed training session against Connacht thirds on Stephen’s Day. 4 from the next 4 is a distinct possibility!

    Leinster, on the other hand, have Quins X2, Connacht, Munster away, Ulster away. That’s a pig of a fixture list.

    • Here are the issues I see with our fixtures:
      – Ulster won’t see the Scarlets games as dead rubbers, they’ll want 10 points if they can to try and salvage their European campaign even though it’s doubtful we have the firepower to have a serious go at it.
      – Ospreys will likely have Webb and Biggar back who are the form halfback pairing in the Pro12 currently. Might even have Dan Lydiate!
      – Connacht are pretty strong these days, and Ulster will probably field a seconds/thirds team as is traditional for Christmastime interpros.

      For Leinster: Quins this season aren’t exactly the force they have been in the past (even with Robshaw, Brown and Marler coming back). Connacht should be doable at home, as should Ulster (to make a small correction for you). Munster is really the toughest game they have there, and even then Thomond isn’t exactly on its strongest foundations these days for Pro12 matches.

  5. Yossarian

     /  December 1, 2014

    Gopperth is so poor at present i would rather see Cathal marsh play.risks and all that it would bring. With Jimmy you just know you are in for a night of bad kicks, sitting deep and the odd predictable inside pass thrown.
    MOC is in his second year and i hope someone is going over the fine print in his contract. Surely it was 2 years with an option of a third? can we start a collection to buy out the final year?
    Leinster are still capabllf putting out 14(plus jimmy) able to win against Quins but i don’t think they have the coach to implement a game plan to do so. Even if they progress from the group we haven’t a prayer against the likes of Toulon.

  6. Will

     /  December 1, 2014

    One thing we got used to with Schmidt, aside from playing a great brand of rugby and winning, was straight talking. O’Connor talks excuses and is very defensive and he generally makes no sense. Rob Penny was the same – especially when being asked about Munster’s traditional game.
    It’s such a pity to take so many backward steps in the last 18 months. Hopefully new options are being sounded out at the moment. A showreel of their post match interviews should be a good place to start.

  7. Keeping Gopperth at 10 when he was in form had some justification. However, the problems for an O’Connor coached Leinster are more fundamental. Since taking over from Schmidt his game plan, such as it is, has been entirely reductive. He has been trying to remould the Province to play a Leicester lite type game. All straight lines and grunt with little variety. Frankly so long as Leinster persist with MOC nothing will change.

  8. Leinsterlion

     /  December 1, 2014

    One of the most uninteresting games of rugby I have ever seen, not that anything was especially horrible, its just one side displayed no ambition(bar a few back row redden interplay moves) and the other just didnt have the skill(bar some clever kicks in behind). It was such a summation of the MOC era, afraid to go out and grab the game, playing by fear with zero sum game plan ( keeping D-shape and kicking long). The worst thing that could happen is if MOC wins something and stays on and we continue down this path of zero skill rugby, we lose by winning…

  9. Lop12

     /  December 1, 2014

    Not sure why Nucifora isnt banging heads together and trying to orchestrate one of Dougall/Butler/O’Donoghue swap for Marshall to the end of the season. Surely any of those backrows would add a bit to the Ulster strenght in depth; Munster would surely take hand and all if offered Marshall for a few months.

    • That’s fine in theory but in practice….

      You can’t really force any province or players to move around and I think it would take very special circumstances for this kind of movement to take place.

      Dougall is at worst 2nd choice openside (and sometimes more-he started last seasons HCup semi). O’Donoghue was named captain of Munster A for the season at 20 so he’s clearly someone rated very highly that they’d be loathe to lose. You could make a case for Butler, especially since he came up at 8 which is fairly congested but he still gets 10-20 games a season.

      Luke Marshall is still a young man and an international 12. Injuries have hit him hard recently but he’s hardly likely to give up on being Ulster’s first choice so easily.

      • Lop12

         /  December 1, 2014

        Marshall might not give up on it but he might make a pragmatic, temporary, move to the season end (which is what I suggested) to get game time in world cup season.

        Dougall seems to have slipped down the pecking order big time, TOD ahead of him and v likely they play POM or Stander at 7 for EC games to get all best options on pitch. Dougall is ex-Ulster as well so might be happy enough to get a few games.

        • Can players who’ve played with a Pro12 club/region/province in a season play with another in that same season?

          I think there’s a rule against it. It would make sense that there is because it would stop IRFU from meddling and moving players around to take best advantage of resources to detriment of other league members who can’t do the same.

          • Michael Robinson

             /  December 1, 2014

            I couldn’t see a rule preventing a player representing more than one Pro12 team in a season. The player would need to be registered and there is a maximum of 38 registered players per team, so someone else may need to be deregistered. There is a deadline of 20 March for registration changes.

          • I doubt there’s a limit of 38 players – maybe you’re thinking of the European Whatsits which has a 38-man sqad limit? Connacht have already used 40 players and I’d imagine Leinster must be closer to 50.

          • Pro12 competition rules say up to 38 players registered per team. However there are additional rules for “permit players” – these are players registered with other non-Pro12 teams. So academy players registered with AIL clubs would be treated as permit players.

  10. It was a truly awful game on Saturday night. What really rankled was there was no excuse to play such basic, low skill rugby. Not a breath of wind, dry and cool – perfect playing conditions against what was, let’s be honest, a second/third string Ospreys side.

    When Darragh fecking Fanning gets the biggest cheer of the game, you know something’s gone seriously wrong with the team.

    I wrote about this before, but I just can’t understand what MOC is trying to achieve, what is his rugby ethos? His gameplan is non-existent, as is his trust in the skills of his players. It’s a truly awful comedown from 2 seasons ago with what is by and large the same squad. They have all regressed so much in Leinster blue, they’re a shadow of what they were in terms of ambition, execution and confidence.

    Pathetic, I would never wish my team to lose, but I honestly won’t be gutted if we don’t make it out of our pool if it forces change at the top…

    • curates_egg

       /  December 1, 2014

      Darragh Fanning deserves all the cheers he gets. He (and Dom Ryan) have really shone this season and seem to be the only ones to come through this shambolic period with their reputations enhanced. I think we all just need to put our hands up and say thank you to Fanjio for continuing to turn in good shifts in spite of what’s going on.

  11. curates_egg

     /  December 1, 2014

    Madigan is fit to play: http://www.irishtimes.com/sport/rugby/european-cup/ian-madigan-passed-fit-to-play-harlequins-at-the-stoop-1.2021538

    O’Connor must be gutted, as now he’ll have to play him somewhere (obviously not 10). Maybe he could play him second row? Seems we have a gap there now.

    • Riocard O Tiarnaigh

       /  December 1, 2014

      I would love MO’C to prove us all wrong and pick Madigan at 10 on Saturday. Is it beyond the realms of possibility? Well, he actually was complimentary to the opposition in the post-match interview after the Ospreys bore-fest – a first for him as far as I’m aware of, so who knows? A couple of novenas and maybe a little prayer to Saint Jude might come in handy….

      • curates_egg

         /  December 1, 2014

        No chance. Madigan for second row. He’d be our best passing second row since the man from Wagga Wagga.

        • SportingBench

           /  December 1, 2014

          He and Tuohy would make a wonderful footballing second row for the WC?

    • D6W

       /  December 1, 2014

      Who will rid us of his turbulent coach???

    • Fergal

       /  December 2, 2014

      Tight-head prop, surely, to cover for Mike Ross?

  12. @LeinsterPAGuy

     /  December 1, 2014

    This all part of the new policy to get people to go back to their clubs, watch and become part of the fantastic rugby that is happening around the province on a weekly basis.

    Week in, week out, there are top quality games, be it UBL, U20s, Schools, LL1A, LL1B…
    The sooner we embrace this line of thinking from head office, the sooner MOC’s mandate will have been successfully completed and he can then be allowed to go and take on his next rugby mission.

    P.S. Going to club games is unbelievably cheaper than watching that shit in the RDS every second week. 😉

    • Nuggie

       /  December 1, 2014

      An AIL team would be embarrassed to play that badly in front of any club fans.

    • Leinsterlion

       /  December 1, 2014

      *thumbs up* defo agree.

    • Fergal

       /  December 2, 2014

      And you all laughed when I mentioned the phrase “Michael Bradley’s Leinster”…be careful what you wish for, you might just get it!

  13. Spikes

     /  December 1, 2014

    Agree it seems a pity that the logjam of quality centers in Ulster can’t be traded against the great crop of backrows in Leinster and Munster for the benefit of teams and players alike.

    As for MOC, it’s clear that for whatever reasons, Leinster aren’t gelling under him. On the other hand, I saw Richard Cockerill in the last week saying how much his work at Leicester had been missed, particularly in attack. Are the players refusing to play to his game plan or does Cockerill have bosh-tinted glasses?

  14. zdm

     /  December 1, 2014

    More than anything else, Ulster haven’t adequately replaced their brains trust- not just in terms of vocal leaders but also in terms of grim-faced, don’t-lose-without-a-fight types and game managers.

    Muller was always going to leave a massive gap but they haven’t replaced the likes of Wannenberg, Afoa, Ferris or even Court who could be guaranteed to carry for hard yards with the team down by a few points on a winters night in Glasgae and who would always give a struggling team a bit of a lift via their example.

    They also look a bit all Indians and no Chief at the back- for all the individual brilliance and well executed plays, they don’t have a decision maker who is able to identify what is and isn’t working and change the plan to reflect this – obviously the return of Pienaar and PJ will bump this considerably but they are also missing the guile of Pwal – for all the flak he recieved outside Ulster, he was recognised locally for using his brain to influence a game and I feel this is currently lacking from the current line up.

    Even with all starters back & on form, I fear that we lack for a bit of rugby intelligence – contrast with the national team where you have a strong axis of go-to guys and footballing brains throughout the team (Best, POC, Heaslip, Murray, Sexton, Bob), Ulster have some fine individual players and some top-class units but are a bit lacking in terms of this game intelligence.

  15. On a Ragga Tip

     /  December 1, 2014

    Careful what you wish for. Leinster have most try BPs and are top try scorers this season, were only just pipped by Ospreys to same accolade last season. Most tries conceded in top half though. If anything, should they be trying to tighten up rather than cut loose?…

  16. Patchy recruitment?

  17. Patchy recruitment? There is a deficit in the development of Ulster youth that progress to the academy. The number signings from Leinster clubs is an indication of that. In other professional codes youth are provided with incentives, financial and otherwise. How is the Ulster U18 club and the U16 development squad supported? Are there any financial incentives? Where are the incentives for High School teachers to encourage the better athletes to play rugby? Ulster has done well to provide opportunities for youth rugby. However if Ulster wants to develop the squad depth of Leinster, then some creative and effective strategic incentives should be put in place to attract those youth with potential to progress to the academy.

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