Step Backwards

After the HEC double-headers in December, we thought that Ulster were virtually guaranteed a knock-out slot, Leinster were pretty much gone, and that Munster had a pretty decent shot at a best runners-up slot. They had 11 points in the bag and had upcoming games against Scottish patsies Embra and flouncing Parisians RM92 at home – both glaring try bonus opportunities.

And the try bonus point is most relevant – 19 points looks like it might not be enough, but 21 will almost certainly do it. They managed to get 4 tries at home to Embra, and looked threatening in Paris first time out. Sure, they didn’t come close to the whitewash against Sarries, but hey, it was Saturday Night Fever in Thomond – who wants tries when you can have penalties slotted between the posts through cold foggy air and the tears of the assembled press box in near-deathly silence?

Here’s a problem though – in the aforementioned early rounds, master orchestra conductor, curer of the lepers and Lion-designate Ronan O’Gara (© Conor George) was playing close-ish to the gainline and looking like he was buying into the Rob Penney Barbarimunster masterplan. In the Saracens double-header, he played a little bit further back – but needs must and the 5 points gained were what was required.

But since then, Rog has drifted further and further back to the point were he was almost 15m behind the gainline in the recent Cardiff workout. Sure, his tactical kicking might have been as pinpoint as ever, but who cares when it’s exactly what the opposition want – Cardiff won their lineouts, kept the ball intelligently and won the match at their leisure. How can Munster score tries if their opponents have the ball?

This followed an inability to get a try-scoring bonus point against Ulster’s 2.5th team – another occasion when O’Gara was nearly stepping on Felix Jones’ toes.

How can Munster expect to score 4 tries in 2 successive games without the ball, and with an outhalf who looks like he is no longer even going through the motions of playing the gameplan his coach wants him to? It’s not all O’Gara’s fault of course, but he has virtually full control over his position on the pitch, and he isn’t attacking the line.

It’s far from a home run that Keatley is of the required quality to be the future of the 10 shirt at Munster, but that’s not necessarily the relevant question to be asking; the only important issue is whether Munster have a better chance of beating Edinburgh by four tries with Keatley or O’Gara at 10.  This isn’t necessarily clear-cut, but Keatley is a quick, strong fly-half with a decent running game, as well as being a strong defender.  Against that, ROG is more experienced, a better place kicker and better kicker from hand.  But with tries the requirement, it might be time to lean towards Keatley.  Such a move would inevitibly be met with a media scrum, and Penney is presumably aware of this.  But it’s time for tough calls.

P.S. amid the lengthy debate about where Penney’s vision is leading Munster, we’d be grateful if pundits were more restrained in their use of the phrase ‘return to core Munster values’.  Shane Horgan has been one of the only pundits to resist temptation to fall back on easy, meaningless platitudes, and pointed out on Off The Ball that the fruitless multi-phase attack that yielded no points late in the Saracens game was proof that Munster have to get away from their old game plan.  Certainly, Munster’s attack is lacking, but stuffing the ball up their collective jumper is not going to get it done.

Munster Fly-Half Steers Team To Famous Victory

The good ship Heineken is cruising along nicely, and the hopeless rats are deserting at a cracking pace – after this weekend, the list of realistic quarter finalists stands at a desultory 10 – Ulster and Quins will surely go through alone; and while Toulon, Sarries and Clermont hold the whip hand in their pools, Montpellier, Munster and Leinster are still in touch and have definite best runners-up potential. In the Pool of Death, the Ospreys are virtually gone, leaving Toulouse and Leicester to fight for top spot, and also contest for a best runners-up spot. Racing Metro and Castres are still alive, but they would much prefer to do it in the Top14, and may see HEC progression as counter-productive – the cream is rising to the top.

It was a good weekend for Romanian and Spanish rugby – Bucharest’s win over Agen had echoes of the 80s, when the Mighty Oaks had the Frenchies’ number, and Declan Cusack’s Bizkaia Gernika did what their fellows Basques in Biarritz and Bayonne couldn’t, and won a game – kudos all round. Rather less encouraging was the performance of the representatives from some of European rugby’s more prominent countries – after 3 rounds of the HEC, all the Welsh, Scottish and Italian sides are out of contention for qualification. In a miserable, no win 7 loss weekend for the Pro12 Patsies, Hard-Scrummaging Scarlets and Glasgow’s losses at home to English debutants Exeter and French Euro-bunnies Castres were notable low points. For the second year in three, we will have no Welsh quarter-finalists, Embra’s success last year looks increasingly like a flash in the pan and Italy continues its wait for a knock-out representative – this is not a sustainable divvy-up of the spoils.

All week, we had heard the repeated mantra of the Europe-dominating ambition of Saracens – from the cheerleading media in Blighty talking up their chances in Thomond, to the cheerleading media in Tara Street looking to underpin Munster’s underdog credentials. In the event, their lack of ambition on the field was stunning – for a team with such an array of talented backs, they play a horrendous brand of rugby. It’s hard to credit that a backline containing the likes of Hodgson, Farrell, Strettle, Goode and Ashton can score just 9 tries in 10 Premiership games. Do the top brass at Saracens really think that the type of 10 man dross that was in vogue 4 years ago is really a realistic gameplan for HEC success? If they do, their “European ambition” is just like the Northampton pack – all talk and no trousers.

With Ulster odds-on to be among the top 4 seeds going into the HEC quarter-finals, and the ERC stipulation on a minimum 15,000 capacity for knock-out games, the race is on to get Ravers up to capacity by April. Ulster want nothing less than to win their pool in style, only to draw a best runner-up like their modern-day nemesis, Leinster, and have to effectively give up home advantage. Expect Christmas to be cancelled in Belfast – the quid pro quo will be a first HEC knock-out game at Ravers since January 1999 and a serious tilt at bringing the trophy to Ravers for the second time, and to Ireland for a remarkable seventh.

As for Leinster, yesterday’s game was pretty instructive – Leinster were as “there for the taking” as they are going to be, yet Clermont looked a little intimidated – there is no doubt the regular wins for the D4 goys over the Bananamen have got into their heads. If Leinster end up going back to the Marcel Michelin in a quarter-final, they will be confident they have their number. Leinster won’t be happy at the prospect coming out of the pool in second, but they are probable seventh seeds and will fancy their chances away to Clermont, Ulster, Harlequins and Saracens. Only Toulon represent an intimidating journey into the unknown – it’s a fascinating sub-plot to the jostling for quarter-final seeding – third place might be a better place to be than second.

And finally, to Connacht, whose victory over fading heavyweights Biarritz was possibly the highlight of the weekend.  17 of their 22 points came from the boot of Dan Parks, including two sweetly struck drop goals.  In a season when foreign signings have been more under the microscope than ever, he is pound for pound th best bit of business by an Irish province this summer.  He is exactly what Connacht needed at this point in their development and is performing an invaluable job for them, turning the pressure they generate into points on the scoreboard.

The result certainly had an effect on our Munster-Leinster collision course.  It more or less takes Biarritz out of the equation, as they can only achieve a maximum of 20 points.  So, perhaps both Leinster and Munster could qualify as best runners-up?  Perhaps, but it’s looking like we might have been a bit dismissive of Pool 2’s chances of producing a second qualifier.  We thought Ospreys would be a contender in a three-way tussle in that group, but it doesn’t look like panning out that way.  With Ospreys now all but doomed, both Toulouse and Leicester could win there and set about achieving some pretty high points totals.

PS the “think of the fans” argument for not sending off players who commit dangerous tackles is one of the most annoying memes of modern times. After Lloyd Williams was sent off for dumping Benoit Paillauge on his noggin, Ieuan Evans and Paul Wallace moaned about how it was never a red, and the Sky line at full-time was how disappointing it all was for the fans to see a refereeing decision “ruin the game”. It prompted us to imagine this hypothetical conversation between fans:

Fan 1: Oh look, Player A is going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life after being dumped on his head.

Fan 2: Who cares about that, I’m just hoping the referee doesn’t send off Player B – I paid £15 to see this!

Twenty20 Vision

It’s that time of year again – the December Heineken Cup double headers when the Irish get to teach the French culture and passion – the magic in the air (thanks, Gerry) of Irish provincial grounds has those renowned philistines in Biarritz and Bayonne setting down their hatchets and hams and asking could they be more like us.

The December pair of games often decide the fates of teams, either by gaining momentum with two quick wins, or edging an opponent out of the race over two legs. The relatively short break between these rounds, and the January games is an important factor too – teams can maintain form better over a few weeks of holidays than a month-long international break, and, conversely, a pair of disappointing results is hard to come back from.

This season’s competition is no different, and the three big Irish provinces face their biggest pool rivals in the crucial double headers, but from drastically different places. If Ulster manage one win and a losing bonus point, they will be on 14 points at Christmas with two eminently winnable games to come and their fate very much in their own hands – they will then have the pool more or less wrapped up (barring any disasters away to Castres), and will be targeting a home quarter final. They will, of course, be looking to win in Franklin’s Gardens, but these Saints have their moments and a losing bonus point would be no disgrace. Still, Ulster are in charge of their pool and have room for manouevre, unlike Leinster and Munster.

Adding up the numbers, it seems Munster and Leinster should be keeping a closer eye on each other than you might think, because of how the other pools are turning out. In Pool 6, Nouveau Riche Toulon are on the verge of disappearing into the distance – a double header with bluffers Sale Sharks and at least 9 points awaits – and the other teams are so rubbish/uninterested [delete as appropriate] they have no chance of scraping together enough points to push for qualification as a best runner-up. Pool 2 is the precise opposite – Toulouse, Leicester and the Ospreys are going to go down to the wire, meaning probably only one team is likley to get through, particularly with Treviso dangerous at home. Pool 3 is one where we will  see the first of the qualifying runners-up  – Harlequins and Biarritz have doubles with Zebre and Connacht respectively and we expect four wins for the bigger boys and both should be sitting pretty over egg nog with Granny.

So if the second runner-up isn’t going to come from Toulon or Ulster’s groups, or the Group of Death, who does that leave? Right! Its Leinster and Munster’s pools! What fun. Could the two Irish giants be on a collision course of sorts, without actually facing each other.  It looks like it.  We have Clermont and Saracens strong favourites in both pools – Clermont have a 2 point lead  and revenge in their sights, and Saracens are 3 points ahead in a pool with 2 rubbish teams in it. So the famously friendly provinces could be scrapping for the final slot in this years knock-out stages.

So how will it pan out?

Leinster are currently on 8 points after 2 games. They will have as their base case scenario:

  • Clermont (a) – 0 points
  • Clermont (h) – 4 points
  • Hard-scrummaging Scarlets (h) – 4 points
  • Exeter (a) – 4 points

A losing bonus point, to be truthful, is a tough ask in the Marcel Michelin, and is odds against, despite their recent record against les Jaunards. Five wins will give them 20 points, with home to the Scarlets being the obvious target for a bonus point to get to 21.  There’s scope to get up to 23 if they can get something this weekend, and perhaps if Exteter are a little punch-drunk in mid-January.

As for Munster, they have 6 after 2 games – 1 win and 2 bonus points. Here’s what they will look for, as a base case:

  • Saracens (h) – 4 points, tears and tales of Keith Wood and John Langford besting Pienaar and co
  • Saracens (a) – 1 point, tears and emotion from Gerry about famous away performances
  • Embra (a) – 4 points
  • Racing Metro (h) – 5 points from the French bunnies, tears, and triumphant recall of famous days past

That’s 20 as well! Rob Penney and his merry men will target pointless (in all senses) Embra as a potential extra bonus point to get to 21 themselves, but it’s hard to see them getting above this without beating Saracens twice, thereby winning the group and making the calculations irrelevant. Wow – isn’t this fun? Now, if they have the same number of points, it goes to tries scored, and Munster currently lead that metric 6-1, but they have less margin for error. Us? We hope it goes to the wire [well, Egg does; Palla just wants Leinster through and for his heart rate to stay below 180 in the process], and wouldn’t it be ironic if Leinster played their final game against Exeter knowing what they had to do – say, score 4 tries and win by 27 points or something unlikely like that? Imagine how miraculous that would be!