Epic Odyssey

Once again, into the breach – our brave, faithful, honest and passionate warriors once more hitch planes, trains, automobiles, bikes, segways, scooters and all and every mode of transport possible to get to the south of France, where they will walk over molten lava to the ground to pay homage to their heroes, through the misty air stoked by too much pate and too many Kronenburg’s in De Danu the night before.

As much fun as it is to make fun of the Munster stereotype, Munster in Europe is a great story, and the gift that never stops giving. Somehow they always make the HEC about themselves, the selfish bar stewards!

For the second year in succession, it’s Munster who are the lone Irish standard-bearers at this stage of the competition – and again it’s a tough trip to France to play for a place in the final. Munster might have been faced with a feeble Toulouse challenge in the quarters, but it’s easy to get dragged down the their level – just ask Sarries – and Munster did what they needed to do and more, swatting them aside with consumate ease, and running in bucketloads of tries in the process.

We have a huge amount of time for this Munster team – a young pack executing a technically excellent and accurate game with emphasis on set-piece and maul dominance, Europe’s best scrum-half (did you know he played 10 for Garryowen once?) and slippery and creative outside backs who may or may not celebrate too much when they score tries. Great fun to watch and easy to get behind – the cobwebs of the directionless and indisciplined dog days of the McGahan era, with its belly-tickling European knockout performances, have long been swept away.

But while this Munster team had just three representatives on Joe Schmidt’s Championship-winning Ireland team, and are facing a star-studded Toulon operation that slammed a Leinster side festooned with Irish players into the turf and held them down for 80 minutes, don’t think that a hammering is in order. This is the type of occasion Munster live for – just look at last season when they were mighty close to mugging Clermont – and they will be out like dervishes, without any kind of semblence of respect for Toulon’s big names, who will have to go out and win the game.

There is a bit of history there too – the last time the teams played, the dying sting of the Liginds was devoid of any potency and the team played without shape or discipline; they were tonked. But for Saturday that can be ignored – an almost entirely new Munster side (with Earls, Varley, POC and Cawlin possibly the only survivors) will line out, and Jonny Wilkinson and JM Fernandez Lobbe (swoon) may be the only Toulon players who played in that game.  What, no Paul Sackey?

But let’s be honest – Toulon look just too strong for them – a backrow of Fernandez Lobbe, Steffon Armitage and Juan Smith is World XV stuff, and adding Matthieu Bastaread to the breakdown and Wayne Barnes to the middle only ensures a game that will be played on Toulon’s terms, with no prospect of quick ruck ball and moving the point of the attack. Expect Munster to put up a hell of a fight, but it’s tough to see how they can win without Peter O’Mahony and a viable 10-12 axis. The congregation in the parish of St Axel’s have been raving about CJ Stander for a while now, and he had an excellent game against Toulouse, but this is a different level altogether – if he can impact this match as much as he did that, then maybe the hype is justified. And it’s simply impossible to visualise a universe where Ian Keatley and Oooooooooooooooooooooohh James Downey have the game to take on Wilko and Gits.

And we must take this opportunity to once again implore the media not to try and turn this match into a ridiculous galacticos-against-the-parish narrative.  There’s no room for slackers in Toulon’s hiring policy – the so-called galacticos are in fact men of iron who would die with their boots on whoever they were playing for – and the fans and players have a bond no different to that of the Irish provinces in what is a rugby-mad town.

Add in that Toulon’s only loss in their last eight games was in Clermont, and that they have effectively secured a bye in le barrage – they only need to avoid defeat at home to Stade in their last game – and Toulon’s focus will be four-square on defending their HEC trophy (and keeping it forever?). Munster will arrive in Marseille confident and in no mood to lay down, but this Toulon team will eventually overcome them – when you can bring on the likes of Castro and Bryan Habana to face down Stephen Archer and Johne Murphy off the Munster bench, it’s unlikely to end in defeat.  We expect it to be a sort-of-reverse of the Clermont fixture last year.  In that game Clermont stormed out of the traps and threatened to destroy Munster in the first 40 minutes.  But Munster held on by their fingernails and gradually got a grip of the game.  Toulon tenfd to start slower and ratchet up the intensity in increments, so it could be neck-and-neck after 50 to 60 minutes.

Still, Toulon by 8-12 after a mighty first hour.

In the other semi, we fancied Saracens on the basis of home advantage and Clermont’s renowned ability to lose to inferior teams in pressure moments, but we are beginning to waver. On Sunday, Barnesy effortlessly catalogued Sarries ability to lose at home to French teams in recent years, and the memory of their ineptitude in Ravers won’t fade – but for Schalk Brits and Billy Vunipola, they would have lost to a 14-man team missing Rory Best and with Ruan Pienaar flying on one wing. Perhaps Clermont will expose Saracens for what they are – pretenders on the biggest stage. Maybe they need to go off and set up their own tournament or something.

Cordite Awards 2010-11

So, with Toulouse winning the Bouclier de Brennus, the Northern Hemisphere season proper ground to a halt on Saturday night.  However, we’ll still be busy in the off-season, so stay with us over the coming weeks.  We’ll be having a look at Ireland’s World Cup squad options, taking a very long view of the Lions Tour in 2013, and later in the summer, looking at the other teams involved in the World Cup, all the while keeping an eye on goings on down under in the none-too-straightforward Super 15.

But to cap off a memorable season, here are the inaugural Cordite Awards.  Take it away, boys:
Davy Tweed award for International Diplomacy: Chris Ashton. After the November series, it seemed like England had put together a team and a style which was likeable to the neutral. Luckily, Chris Ashton’s increasingly tiresome series of swallow dives against second rate teams restored the status quo of bitterness and resentment from the Celts.
Jason Robinson award for inter-code relations: Shontayne Hape. Never again will right-thinking union fans consider it a good thing that a rugby league player is considering a code switch. Shontayne’s selfless work to denigrate the lesser code is appreciated by all.
Captain Cook award for appreciation of Pacific culture: Stuart Barnes. Barnesy has numerous entries here, mostly for his uncontainable excitement at Manu Tuilagi’s tackling technique but this reached his apogee when Manu unleashed his frustration at not winning the Davy Tweed award on the likeable young scamp Chris Ashton in the AP playoffs.
Jules Winfield award for nutritious snacks: Paddy Wallace. Belfast man Paddy sat on the Ireland bench for around 397 minutes of the 6 Nations, spending the other 3 as a blood sub for Dorce. The word is he makes a seriously mean half-time orange. I mean, why else would he be there, its not like the incumbent Ireland 12 was playing like a drain or anything.

Arsene Wenger award for false hope: Danny Cipriani. After bursting on to the scene for the Melbourne Rebels with a series of eye-catching performances, and one fantastic individual try, Danny Cipriani’s season descended into disciplinary issues, conflict with management, and ultimate disappointment. WoC is a huge fan, but maybe Johnno was right all along.
Brendan Venter award for Whinging about the Ref: Gerry Thornley.  It didn’t matter who was reffing or playing this year, if an Irish team lost, the erstwhile Gerry found a way to blame the ref. Pearson and Poite got the worst of it, usually for daring to penalise the Munster forwards in a European game. WoC contacted Gerry once this season, and got the frenzied response that Pearson had asked Wilko for his autograph at full-time. Hmmmmmmm.

Niccolo Machiavelli award for political scheming: Frankie Sheahan. Commentating on RTE on a nondescript ML game just before the 6 Nations, Frankie awarded the MotM to his client (and WoC favourite), David Wallace. Wally himself was clearly bemused during the presentation, probably because he did not break sweat and came off after 50 minutes. WoC is sure it had nothing to do with the fact that Wally was fighting with Sean O’Brien for the Ireland 7 shirt the following week.

Frankie Sheahan award for neutrality: Stephen Jones. We were going to give the entire Irish press corps this award for confidently predicting Ireland would easily dispatch the Springboks without breaking sweat in November, but then we saw the Stephen Jones 2013 Lions team. A Henson-Roberts centre partnership might be more convincing if either of them 1. had played recently, or 2. were actually any good.
Warren Gatland award for trash-talking: Neil Best. The Worcester Warrior wasn’t Deccie-bashing on his own behalf, but for Roger Wilson and James Downey, who were no doubt delighted that such a renowned statesman as Besty was batting on their behalf. Wilson must have particularly appreciated this gem from Neil: “I look at the Ireland back-row and think you need to be world-class to get in there”

The Tana Umaga Award for Failing to Ground the Ball: Graham Kitchener.  Toulouse’s Caucau being too fat to bend over and ground the ball properly was one thing, but it wasn’t that important in the end. So the prize goes to Worcester’s Graham Kitchener who ran in for a try 5 minutes from time in the playoff semi-final, with Worcester still needing the conversion to take the lead, celebrated, and then knocked-on.  He looked a broken man afterwards.

The Stephen Jones Award for Bizarre Punditry: Jeremy Guscott.  At the Sunday Times’ chummy roundtable discussion before the Six Nations the subject of young Scottish lock Richie Gray came up.  All were agreed that he looked a prospect.  All, that is, except for Jeremy Guscott, who said ‘he looks like he’s running through quicksand’.  It made little sense then, and absolutely none after the tournament finished, and Gray was pencilled in by most as the 2013 Lions Test 2nd row.

The George H W Bush ‘No More Taxes’ Award for About Face: George Hook.  Serial winner of this award George Hook triumphs again on several counts, chief among them his assertion after the Scotland game that Jonny Sexton shouldn’t play for Ireland until after the World Cup.  Post-HEC Final, Hooky is calling for Sexton to be captain.  He’s not prone to hysteria, is our George.