Stick It Up The Jumper

We may have advised Put Lum to put out the kids in Grenoble, but he inevitably didn’t, went full bore, and nearly won. The game itself was a stonker, a properly exciting show from two teams intent on scoring more points than the other. Connacht led by 16 and 10 points and were ultimately unlucky to lose a game they could easily have won.

The aftermath of the game brought forth lots of pats on the head for Connacht for “refusing to compromise” and “playing rugby their way” with the assertion that if only they had been more “pragmatic” they would have scraped through. Pragmatic of course being code for sticking it up the jumper.

It is telling that, for all Connacht’s success this season, which is based on Southern Hemisphere style multi-dimensional attack with plenty of forwards passing the ball and tons of offloads, they are being advised to tighten up in this stage of the season. Almost as if playing attacking rugby hadn’t actually won them any games. Now it’s time for the big boys Connacht, play some cup rugby.

Of course, close observers of rugby this season will be able to point to an actual cup that has already happened, some crucible where the concept of cup rugby – sticking it up the jumper, playing it narrow and “going through the phases” – could be tested .. the World Cup. And that of course was where teams that most exemplified cup rugby as described – England, Ireland and France – did so poorly. Wales won their key game only by throwing caution to the wind in the second half, and lost narrowly to Australia and South Africa (and England in the Six Nations) while playing Warren-ball.

And of course the teams with the most skill who went out to win games by scoring in multiples of 7 and not 3 were BNZ, Australia and Argentina. But .. y’know … cup rugby.

Next up for Connacht is a crucial Pro12 game, which can as good as seal playoff qualification, at home to the high priests of cup rugby – Axel Foley’s Munster. Foley was hired in a barrage of RTTMV headlines, and has delivered those values in spades, but unfortunately the game has moved on, and the dreadful spectacle of a prop with 15 international caps being unable to execute a 4-on-1 overlap was emblematic of their season.

If Connacht play close to their abilities, which involve passing and offloading and intelligence, and Munster continue to show all the skill and cohesion they’ve shown all season, Connacht will win. And despite it being late in the season, they won’t do it by taking the deadening advice of late as resorting to “cup rugby”, because that won’t work. And perhaps its a lesson Irish rugby could take to heart

Arrivederci, Mils

Fare thee well Mils Muliaina, who is leaving Connacht and is bound for warmer, drier climes in Northern Italy. Although Mils should be warned, the Italian winters and springs aren’t entirely tropical either.

It brings to a close one of the more useless performances by a high-profile import for an Irish province. Mils has started precisely ten matches in his only season with Connacht, scored no tries and generally didn’t play much decent rugby. He was lamentable against Leinster, briefly sparked into life against Scarlets, but didn’t do much of note after that.

A certain group of Connacht fans have been quick to go on the defensive on Mils’ behalf, and appear to be in a rush to credit Muliaina with being hugely influential on Ver Kidz in Connacht’s backline. Some have even tried to credit Mils with Robbie Henshaw’s emergence as a truck-it-up inside-centre for Ireland. Go Mils! His influence must be staggering to reach as far as Carton House when he isn’t even there. Without being on the training paddock itself, it’s impossible to identify what, if any, influence Mils has had on the young Connacht backs, so it’s simply idle speculation and wishful thinking to claim otherwise. Yes, the management statement issued around his leaving contained lots of glowing reportage about his driving of standards, but then they would say that, wouldn’t they? It’s PR puff, and should be treated as such. How high he can have driven standards when mostly injured, overweight and underperforming on the pitch is hard to quantify.  It doesn’t appear that Connacht put up much of a fight to keep him on for a second year.

There was a time when Irish provinces felt they needed the type of Southern Hemisphere superstar who could add something the natives didn’t have yet. John Langford is of course the classic template – the Gospel of John “Thou shalt not drink on a Thursday night if thee faces a big game on Saturday” came as news to the Paddies, but the knowledge he brought has long been absorbed. Rocky Elsom, Dougie Howlett, Ollie Le Roux, Johan Muller are further hugely influential players in provincial development. This was what Muliaina was supposed to bring. Will Darragh Leader and Robbie Henshaw lament in 40 years time that they wanted more time to learn from Mils back in 2015? We doubt it.

There is a legitimate claim for Muliaina to be anointed the worst ever signing by an Irish province, particularly given the investment in him. Whenever this pub debate classic comes up, it’s customary to roll out the Clinton Hupperts, Harry Vermasses and Peter Borlases of the world as the nadir of provincial recruitment, but none of those were especially heralded on arrival. They were just hopeless. Muliaina arrived as one of the all-time greats – a test centurion for New Zealand, an achievement which confers upon the holder absolute world class. For a player of such stature to perform so abjectly must go down as a new low. Sure, Christian Cullen had an injury-plagued nightmare at Munster, culminating in an abysmal performance against Scarlets as Munster were thrashed in the Heineken Cup quarter-final, but he did at least appear to be trying, and the likes of O’Gara have commented on how committed he was to turning things around, but just couldn’t stop getting hurt.

There’s a risk of embarrassing failure with any high-profile import, but it tends to be especially high with these types of ‘last of the summer wine’ type signings; bringing in players way past their peak, in the hopes of ekeing out the last drops of quality. The model for success was the afore-mentioned Le Roux, who proved that a little (or a lot, perhaps) of extra timber need not be a barrier to success – but then he was a prop and not a full-back. Muliaina will most likely go down as the model for failure. Mid-30s Kiwi superstar backs looking for a last payday: approach with caution.

NB to commenters – please don’t go into detail about The Thing That Happened with PC Plod in Gloucester. Allegations about parking spaces at the dog track Sportsground are fair game, however.

Squeaky Bum Time

Egg was minding his own business contemplating watching Jurassic Park III on <insert rubbish cable TV channel> on Saturday night when he noticed a tweet from a chap he’d never heard of. No, not the Examiner’s chief rugby correspondent, but “Paul Morgan”. Morgan had the following to say for himself: “The key thing since European qualification has changed… People are talking about and caring about the Pro12 more than ever”.

It was only after one of our eagle-eyed followers pointed it out that we noticed Morgan was Communications Director for Premiership Rugby aka the lackey of McCafferty, Craig and co. Sigh. Propaganda justifying a position held for monetary reasons then? Well, in Morgan’s case, yes, obviously. Unless this view, which is his own of course, happily happened to mirror 100% the views of his mates (and paymasters in this case). It’s nice when that happens, isn’t it? – kind of like when Charlie Mulqueen points out that it wasn’t Denis Hurley’s fault that Munster got knocked out of Europe, and his stint at 12 was an unreserved success story. Right.

Anyway, back to Morgan. Problem is, fulminate away, but when you have finished thumping your John Knox-signed bible/infusing your olive oil with white truffle/singing Amhran na bFiann extremely passionately/going to Saw Doctors concerts (delete as appropriate depending upon provincial affiliation), you’ll realize that he’s right. Maybe for the wrong reasons, but he’s right.

Take Friday night’s Cardiff-Connacht game for example – Cardiff’s last minute win was exciting sure, and would have been equally exciting in years gone by, but it meant a whole lot more this time. Cardiff kept their faint hopes of an ERCC slot alive, and kept Connacht close to the chasing pack at the same time – and the huge roar at the final whistle spoke volumes to the importance of the game for the league as a whole, as well as both teams. And the bizarre story Pat Lam had to tell about parking spaces and refereeing bias in the heat of passion would likely not have made it to print were it a meaningless mid-table clash. Less two bald men fighting over a comb, more two thinning on top men fighting over the right to be fed to Toulon in bite-size chunks.

At the top of the Pro12, there are five teams who are more or less qualified for the ERCC – Glasgae, Munster, Ulster, Ospreys and Leinster – and four of them will make the knockouts. Glasgow have the top spot more or less sewn up, but behind them it’s three into four.  The Irish provinces have just come off the back of a torrid weekend, with all four losing to their somewhat less illustrious, regionally composite Welsh counterparts.  A portent of doom for next weekend?  Hopefully not.

Leinster are in a bit of a jam, lying in fifth, but they are still in the reckoning.  They have still to play both Ulster and Glasgae, and are well in the reckoning.  They have made an unusual habit of throwing points away against the poorer teams in the league this year, and chances are they will have to go to Ravenhill and win.  They are also the only team in the competition that has European distractions ahead of them.

Ulster and Munster are locked on have the toughest fixtures, with only two home games and three against fellow top five teams. Their meeting on the penultimate weekend may swing it – not only do Ulster have a good record against Munster, but its in Ravers, so advantage Ulster for that one.

One of the hapless Italians will join the big five in Europe, plus one of Connacht, Scarlets, Embra (or maybe – at a stretch – Cardiff). Scarlets host Embra next, and also have games against both hapless Italians – albeit away. They are entitled to be considered favourites to nab the final spot. From an Irish perspective, Connacht will need to earn it the hard way if they are to qualify – with games against each of the current top 4 to come. Perhaps they should, y’know, reserve a parking spot for the ref at the dog track..

Interpro Mini League

And the winner of the Holiday Season Interpro League is… Leinster. They were the only province to manage two wins over the festive period which was low on memorable rugby matches and high on debates about whether international players should be more readily available for these matches or not.

By far the best match over the period was Connacht’s superb victory over Munster. For those who don’t get to see Connacht as often as they would like (count us as members of the club) the win was notable for the amount of rugby Connacht were willing to play on a rain-and-wind-lashed (i.e. slightly above average weather) night in Galway. With Kieran Marmion controlling the tempo, Connacht showed far more enterprise than Munster in creating space. Ex-pro commentators tend to be remarkably conservative types and generally implore the team they are discussing to play less rugby, typically suggesting they kick the ball away or stick it up the jumper, but Connacht confounded everyone with a willingness to play ball. Their short-passing game was especially impressive, with the passer frequently delaying his popped pass to perfection. Passing!  Instead of just running at the chap in front of you!  Who knew such things were possible?  Their youthful second rows were marvels to behold, especially in the carrying stakes, but the outstanding players on the pitch were their footballing centres, Bundee Aki and the increasingly magnificent Robbie Henshaw. It was Connacht’s only win of the mini-series, but their two other games were tough away matches and they got a bonus point out of Ravenhill. They stay on course for the top six.

For Leinster and Munster it was a curious series. With home advantage ruling supreme, Leinster won two, while Munster won one. However, the supine, apologetic nature of Leinster’s defeat in Thomond Park almost counts as a double-defeat. It was a result that had been threatening for some time, with Leinster having played numerous get-out-of-jail cards in the weeks leading up to it. Finally, the full-scale awfulness of their form was laid bare and we suspect that the ‘spoiled Leinster fans’ line will harder to dredge up in light of this defeat; any fanbase would be entitled to ask for more than that. It was like the clock was rewound to 2005.

As for the men in red, they seem to have the opposite problem to Leinster. They keep on losing, but nobody seems to notice. A fine and impressive win over Leinster in which Donncha O’Callaghan passed the ball at least twice masks the fact that they have now lost four games from five including at home in Europe, away to Glasgow where they surrendered a handsome lead, and in Connacht where they routinely win. They’ve allowed Leinster to close the gap on them to a point and given that a European exit is more likely than not, they need to keep the points column ticking over in the Pro12.

Up in Ulster, injuries and a lot of behind the scenes messing around have scuppered the season. All the talented blonde backs in the world count for little when there is nobody up front who can make the hard yards. With Nick Williams injured for the foreseeable, and useless anyway for at least the last 12 months, Iain Henderson not back until possibly after the Six Nations, Stuart McCloskey also crocked and Chris Henry’s return as yet unknown, their only decent yard-maker is a second row, Dan Tuohy. One supsects they would offer a king’s ransom for a decent bludgeon and a passable openside, where the only available player is Clive Ross. As Stephen Ferris sort-of put it, ‘I don’t mean to disrespect anyone but something-something Clive Ross’.  Ulster may find the squeeze coming on for semi-final places; it looks increasingly like a season that will be put down to experience, possibly including Neil Doak’s experience as a head coach.

Interpro Season

The Christmas interpros are upon us. The phrase ‘silly season’ has often been most appropriate as the games rarely amount to as much as they should. It’s a part of the calendar that hasn’t really been worked out properly, with coaches responding to player welfare rules by sending Ver Kidz on their away trip and saving the first choice men for the home match. The net effect is a series of non-events.

Dare we suggest that might change, at least a little this season? The decision to schedule Munster v Leinster on St. Stephens’ Day looks designed to add some extra wallop to these seasonal fixtures. Matt O’Connor dare not risk the fans’ ire further by throwing the game against their rivals. Or will he? Ulster do that kind of thing for fun, but then they mostly beat Munster and don’t have the biggest rivalry in world rugby (sic) to think about.

Another reason we might get a decent round of fixtures is more by accident than design. The Pro12 table is super-tight and all the Irish teams are jammed in the top six. Connacht’s big improvement has arguably been the provincial story of the year, while the mediocre form of the Big Three means the gap from first to fourth has never been so tight. And with Glasgow and Ospreys going well in the league, there’s no guarantee that the likes of Leinster can cruise through to the final in third gear, as they have done in previous years.

Leinster face all of Connaht (home), Munster (away) and Ulster (home); two-from-three is the minimum acceptable return. Matt O’Connor’s apologists in the meeja – we’re getting a bit tired of the line that Leinster fans are simply asking too much for their team to play a bit of decent rugger – keep perpetuating the myth that Leinster are ‘on course for another Pro12’ but in fact they’re off the pace. They’re fifth and three points behind Ulster, which sounds ok, but it’s not great. Realistically, to win the league one has to finish in the top two, as winning two away games in a row in the ‘barrage’ is very difficult. The final has been contested by the top two in each year since the format was devised. Leinster have also dropped six points they really shouldn’t have; losing one of their home games and drawing in Treviso. If Leinster lose two of their games, they will find themselves well off the pace, and possibly below Connacht, in sixth.

Ulster could really do with a pick-me-up after what has proved a disastrous European campaign. It’s hard to see that occurring away to Ospreys so they simply must beat Connacht and hope to get something from their trip to Leinster. In recent seasons they’ve sent pretty unfamiliar teams to the RDS so don’t be surprised to see the likes of Bronson Ross, Sean Reidy and –no, hang on, those are first team players. Maybe even Ruaidhri Murphy will play.

But whatever way you look at it, the big three are coming off a period of high intensity matches, and no amount of fixture list management will change the fact that the Christmas interpros aren’t exactly Clermont Auvergne in the massif central. For Connacht, though, it’s different. They sent a reserve team to Bayonne in the Challenged Cup, so we can be sure they’re targeting this trio of games in a big way. They’re dining out on rave reviews for their newly enterprising rugby under Pat Lam. After they struggled for results last season, they are getting the rewards this time around. They have Kieron Marmion, Robbie Henshaw and Mils Muliaina, and there is a sense that for the first time possibly ever, they are capable of properly competing with their illustrious neighbours. They have to play Leinster away, Ulster away and their only home match is against Munster, who they never beat, so it’s a tough old run of games. This is their equivalent of the back-to-backs and their chance to put down a huge marker for the rest of the season.

Back to Black

Munster’s late, and largely irrelevant, bonus point wrapped up what was a pretty horrific set of double headers from the Irish provinces in the ERCC. Munster lost 8-2 in match points, gave up their first home loss to a French opponent and were thoroughly outclassed by (the admittedly brilliant) Clermont Auvergne. With a bit more concentration yesterday, Clermont could have won the double header 9-1, and that would not have been an outcome which any Irish fan could have seriously queried. The late bonus point does at least have them feeling a bit better about themselves, and they will need to be feeling good to win in Globo Gym. Leinster broke even, 5-5, but are behind Quins on the tie-breaker (match points this year) and in the table. Ulster won their double header 5-4, but, since their faint hopes required 9 points, the fact they lost one of the games is the relevant point.  When future generations are asked if they know their Clive Ross from their Bronson Ross, they’ll look quizically at you and say ‘What are you talking about?’.

By our reckoning, the last time two of the three major Irish provinces lost their double headers was 15 years ago, the year after Ulster won what was then the European Cup – Leinster won and lost to Stade but were behind on both tie-breakers (bonus points hadn’t been invented yet), Ulster lost twice to Llanelli (not the Scarlets – they are completely different, obviously) and Munster saved Irish bacon by beating Colomiers twice. The Liginds were European newbies at that stage, and the ensuing tear-soaked journey to the final went quite a way to kindling the love affair with Europe.

We find it hard to envisage an Irish side making this year’s final though – they simply look too far off the French teams, and a home quarter-final is odds-against in both cases. In fact, for all the crowing from Bruce Craig et al about increased competitiveness, and following the pattern of recent seasons, most of the quarter-final places have been more or less decided – with Munster/Saracens the only serious question mark, unless Glasgow can secure a rare win on English turf.

Pool 1: Clermont are home and hosed – two more wins takes them to 22 points, and another point is a possiblity. The runners-up slot will be decided at Allianz Park in the next round, when Munster bring real fans to drown out the PA system. Saracens put a bonus point on Clermont in Round 1, have only lost to the Saints at home this year, and beat a Munster side superior to this current edition two seasons ago – it’s a big stretch to call this for Munster right now, and we can’t get there. We reckon Saracens to finish second on 17 points. If Munster do make it, they’ll likely have 18/19 points.

Pool 2: Quins have a home game against Wasps and visit patsies Castres in the last round – 8 points is virtually a given, with 9 a possibility – that takes them to 21/22. Leinster should just about be able for Castres, but might struggle with Wasps’ gargantuan pack – they’ll need to lose that one 5-0 in match points to go out, which is pretty unlikely, but we wouldn’t fancy them to win if that game was today. Leinster to finish second with 19 points.

Pool 3: Toulon will win both games, and probably score four tries against Ulster – that brings them to 22. A likely home win each for Leicester and Ulster won’t be enough to get them into the mix for the quarters, but Leicester to finish second on 14 for what it’s worth.

Pool 4: Toulouse are the only team to date with a 100% record, and look likely to finish the pool stages that way, with games against the Sam Burgess XV and Montpellier, who have thrown in the towel in hapless and hilarious fashion. Glasgow have a home game to feed off Montpellier’s rotting corpse, after which they go to Bath, where a win will be needed to be in the qualification mix. It’s an intriguing match-up, with Bath most likely out of the qualification picture by then, but it’s a big ask for Glasgae to win in the Rec. So we think Glasgae will finish second on 16.

Pool 5: Racing Metro will go to the Saints in the last round, and if Northampton don’t beat Ospreys away in round 5, a losing bonus point will suffice to top the pool on 20, with Saints losing the tie-breaker and finishing second on 20. Spare a thought for the Hairsprays, who could finish 3rd on 17 points, which might be enough to qualify from other pools (helped by Treviso).  If Northampton can beat the Ospreys, and beat Racing Metro, they’ll top the group.  Either way, both look good to progress.

That would leave us with:

  1. Toulouse 24
  2. Clermont 22/23
  3. Toulon 22
  4. Quins 21/22
  5. Racing Metro 20
  6. Saints 20
  7. Leinster 19
  8. Saracens 17/18

A win for Glasgow in Bath would push them up to 19 and would create an every-point-counts finale between themselves, Leinster and the winner of Saracens and Munster.

If there is a silver lining to be had, it’s provided by Connacht, who sent a fully reserve team to France and won.  Okay, it was only Bayonne, where the ham comes from, and it was only the Challenged Cup, but still.  They’ll hit the interpros with more feelgood than any of the other provinces.  They look the best coached of the four at the moment, by a mile.  Their next opponent: Leinster.  Great.

The Big Leap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonanza!

If indeed the Heineken Cup is to be recast as a tin-pot version next season, we’ll miss weekends like this one.  An absolute bonanza for Irish rugby, topped off by the most remarkable result in Connacht’s history.  Leinster were entitled to think the Monday headlines would be given over to them, but they were upstaged.  It goes down as arguably the biggest shock in Heineken Cup history.  While Toulouse are not the force of yore, they’re still pretty good.  They beat Saracens away in the previous round and are second in the Top Quatorze.  Connacht had been in the midst of a horrendous streak and are below Zebre in the Pro12 log.  Where the hell did they pull this from?  Connacht-watchers might have expected them to use the away game as a mission in damage control, before dialling up the intensity in the Sportsground.  But Connacht cleary had other ideas.  They’ve taken everyone, perhaps even themselves, by surprise.

To put some context in that result, it’s only about two generations of Irish rugby since celebrity Munster fan Mick Galwey stood under the posts in Toulouse imploring the lads to keep it to 50. Back then, at the dawn of professionalism (and the HEC), Munster were about as good as it got in Ireland, and they couldn’t keep the score below 50. Now, Ireland’s weakest province (please don’t be offended) can go there and win. That is incredible.

The question – as always – is whether they can back this up.  Asking them to beat Toulouse a second time in a row might be a bit much to ask, but it should at least give them the belief to get some wins in the Pro12 and work their way off the basement place in the league.  Their star turn appears to be scrum half Kieran Marmion, their busy scrum-half who was unlucky to miss out on a debut cap this autumn.  He could come into consideration in the Six Nations but those who watched Leinster on saturday will have noted that Eoin Reddan looked like a sort of rugby genius.

Which brings us to Leinster, who were superb.  It’s worth rewinding to October, when we put up a couple of posts expressing concerns over the direction in which Matt O’Connor was bringing Leinster.  Thankfully, we left room for an optimistic scenario:

“The optimistic scenario is that Leinster are still operating with a patched-up backline and once O’Driscoll and Fitzgerald – who looked very threatening when he came on – are fully restored to the team that there will be more emphasis on attack and putting the ball through the hands.  In the meantime, O’Connor has tightened up a defence that was more than a little creaky last season, and that focus will begin to shift to attacking and Leinster’s fabled gainline-passing.  One hopes Ian Madigan will be trusted to do some of the playmaking – after all, he’s awfully good at it when given the chance.”

Well, thank heavens for small mercies, because it looks to have come to pass.  The rugby played by Leinster against Northampton looked suspiciously like Schmidt-ball, with an emphasis on gainline passing, varied attacking patterns with inside-ball and wide passing mixed to devastating effect, as well as an almost feral approach to clear-out with those arriving at the ruck driving beyond the ball.  Throw in exemplary ball presentation and it was a near-perfect performance.  It all combined to serve up Eoin Reddan with silver-platter-ball, with which the flaws in his game vanish into the ether and he appears world class.  His speed of thought and deed were too much for the bewildered Saints. Mind you, we’ve said before that these Saints are no-one’s barometer of manliness – this is the third successive occasion at the Gardens where an Irish province has left with 5 points.

What’s remarkable is how in the space of a couple of weeks all half-empty glasses are suddenly brimming over.  After the Australia game all was miserable in the heart of Irish rugby.  Now, options appear everywhere.  Rhys Ruddock looks like yet another – another! – option in the backrow, playing as if to the manor born.  Rob Kearney is looking like his old self.  Gordon D’arcy has gone from a bust to a boom.  Luke Fitzgerald is back!  Keith Earls is back among the tries.  Some excitable fans were even calling for Sean Cronin to start ahead of Rory Best.

Up in Ulster, Paddy Jackson looks like a proper outhalf – his development since his harrowing Ireland experiences in March has been excellent, and he now takes on more of the game management from Ruan Pienaar. And, speaking of Ulster, when a 7-try romp over a team that has given Ulster problems in the past becomes a footnote, something must be going right, even allowing for the relegation of Ulster in Irish rugby minds (should we call this the “Cave Factor” going forward?).

PS. While getting annoyed about celebrity Globo Gym fan Stephen Jones is about as futile as it gets, we must take issue with his latest.  We won’t even go into the laughably uncharitable tone of his Northampton-Leinster write up, but his assertion that refereeing outside England is ‘terrifyingly bad’, with reference to Nigel Owens, who refereed this game, was so far wide of the mark as to be abhorrent.  For a start, the example he cited was just plain wrong.  He claimed Owens didn’t see the miles-forward pass by Cronin, but Owens could clearly be heard saying ‘we’ll go back and check it’ as Luke Fitzgerald was jogging over the line.  And as if it needs saying, Nigel Owens is widely, and rightly, regarded as the best official in world rugby (not best-looking mind, there are some things Steve Walsh just won’t lose).  Still, though, perhaps it’s reassuring: with Jones no longer able to claim a natural superiority for the English clubs over the Irish provinces, he has now turned trained his wobbly aim on the Pro12 referees.  Deary me, what an unedifying sight it is.

Time to Front Up

With all the Heineken Cup wrangling so prominent, it feels almost as if the tournament itself will be a mere background event this year.  How’s about Ulster vs. Leicester on Friday night at Ravenhill to kick off proceedings?  Sounds great, but first tell us about the latest cloak-and-dagger statement to come out from Ligue National de Rugby.

While the Celtalian provinces/regions/franchises don’t come to the negotiating table speciafically, being represented by their umbrella unions, they can do themselves a service by showing strongly and putting out a message to the English sides that they are worthy of being here, regardless of what rule changes may exclude them in the future.

Leinster, Munster and Ulster we know will be competitive – they always are.  It’s time for a handful of Pro12 teams outside the Irish Big Three to show that Anglo-French perceptions of the Pro12 as a sort of joke tournament are wide of the mark.

First on that list has to be Glasgow, increasingly impressive in the Pro12 but seemingly unable to translate their form into wins against the more physically imposing sides in Europe.  Last season they won just one pool game in a group with Ulster, Northampton and Castres, but finished third in the Pro12 and were deeply unfortunate not to beat Leinster in the semi-final.  Spearheaded by the magnificent Josh Strauss at 8 and with great attacking players like Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland in the backline, it’s high time they brought their A-game to the next level.  A lot appears to hinge on which Ruaraidh Jackson shows up for them; more often than not it’s the patchy, flaky, indecisive one.  With Exeter, Cardiff and Toulon in their pool, winning it outright looks difficult, but they should be targeting second place.

Another who can impose themselves in their pool are the fast-improving Treviso.  The premier Italian franchise remain formidable at home, and racked up wins in the second half of last season’s league to finish a creditable 7th.  Their season has been slow to start, but in beating Munster on Friday night they are up and running.  They have signed Matt Berquist to play 10, and it could be a shrewd bit of business, as they have been crying out for a controlling fly-half.  They’re in a pickle of a pool, with Ulster, Leicester and Montpellier, but two home wins is a realistic target.  French sides can take a lackadaisical attitude to such games and are ripe for taking by surprise, and only last season, Leicester only beat Treviso through a somewhat dubious penalty try minutes from the end.  Ulster have yet to hit their stride, and are eminently beatable if they have an off-day.

Ireland’s ‘fourth province’ Connacht have been a soft target for the likes of Stephen Jones, who has said they are not ‘elite’ whatever that means, but they have given a great account of themselves in the big league so far and are back again this year (thanks again to Leinster).  Their group contains Saracens and Toulouse, as well as Zebre.  Toulouse have been to the Sportsground before, and won comfortably, but they are ageing and dull these days.  Connacht will be targeting that game in a big way, and a win would put out a huge signal of the Pro12’s strength.

Finally, what about the Welsh?  As usual, the Ospreys are their best hope.  For all the brickbats they receive, they usually make a big contribution to the tournament. Last year their 15-15 draw with Leicester was the best match of the season, but they have a habit of coming out on the losing side of thrilling games.  They join Leinster, Saints and Castres in what should be a white knuckle-ride of a pool.  Even if they don’t come out of the pool, their results may define it.

Leinster Sign McCarthy

Mike McCarthy has signed for Leinster for next season, in what’s bound to be a controversial and emotion-stirring move.  On the surface it looks like Ireland’s biggest and most successful province has gone poaching the best player from the weakest and least resourced, which doesn’t look very nice, but it’s worth taking some time to see if that is the whole story.

First of all, it’s necessary to say McCarthy is a terrific signing for Leinster.  He’s exactly what they’ve been looking for to fill the Nathan Hines-shaped void in their second row.  He’s a superb footballer, he’s tough, he’s experienced, he’s in his prime, he’s a tighthead-side scrummager and he’s really, really, ridiculously good looking (in fact, maybe he’s more of a replacement for Trevor Hogan than Nathan Hines).

But is it fair game for Leinster to go and take him off Connacht?  First of all, Mike McCarthy is out of contract at the end of the season, so he is not bound to Connacht, and is entitled to move to any other team that chooses to offer terms – he’s a free agent. Secondly, he is (naturally) entitled to get the best deal for himself and his career.  He’s now an established international player and his stock has never been higher – playing with Leinster represents a chance to compete for silverware and enhance his international credentials.  Connacht are having a good season and are improving, but there is no guarantee they’ll be in the Heineken Cup next year – and, at any rate, Connacht players have not been popular under the present international management – moving to Leinster has something of an international insurance policy about it.

Is it fair to compare McCarthy’s move to the experience of Carr, Hagan and to a lesser extent Cronin since making the move from west to east?  Well, McCarthy will be going to Leinster as a first team player, and an important one at that – the other three came as backup (at best), with an understanding that further development was required.  The media coverage of Carr, Hagan and Cronin’s Leinster careers has at times been bewlidering, painting them as hopeless backups who would have been better staying put. Yet Cronin gets regular match-time and has been a success with Leinster. Admittedly, Carr and Hagan have not – but they have hardly helped themselves by performing so poorly.  Leinster currently have an outside-back injury crisis – had Fionn Carr shown any sort of reliability or try-scoring form he would be starting against Clermont this weekend.  But he hasn’t, so he isn’t.

So it checks out on the player’s side, but what about the big meanies from Dublin 4?  Have they behaved appropriately?  Judging by Connacht’s press release, they appear to think not.

But to answer this, you have to look at the structure of Irish rugby.  The provinces are in active competition with one another, not collaboration.  You can argue the rights and wrongs of this, but that being the playing field, Leinster are perfectly entitled to offer terms to an out-of-contract player.  It appears this is something the IRFU are trying to fix, and according to Peter O’Reilly’s recent scoops, the newly appointed Director of Rugby will be responsible for managing the spread of talent among the provinces and increase the levels of co-operation between them.  This can only be good for Connacht; the IRFU might encourage the likes of Lewis Stevenson or Ian Nagle to travel West were it in place now.

It’s worth going back in time to when Nathan Hines did leave Leinster – Munster at the time had the top 4 Irish second rows in the country, judging by the international pecking order – Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Micko and Donnacha Ryan were the second row forwards selected for the 2010 November internationals. If there was an overarching Pro Rugby Tsar, he would probably have asked Ryan (4th in the Munster pecking order) to move to Leinster to replace Hines. So if Ryan were playing for Leinster now, McCarthy might not be moving!

The IRFU centrally contracts some players, and from what we can gather from this shadowy process, encourages them to locate where they have the best chance of first-team rugby, but McCarthy does not appear to have been offered a central contract.  He’s been offered terms by Leinster rugby, so the IRFU (who Connacht say they tried to recruit to keep the player at Connacht) probably couldn’t do an awful lot.  Unfortunately for Connacht, they probably weren’t that pushed either, and presumably have no qualms about McCarthy playing at the highest level, where he will be a guaranteed starter.  Connacht have always been under-resourced by the IRFU, and Leinster probably know that if they go fishing, they will catch.  That is unfortunate, but it is the system that is in place –for now at least – it’s the IRFU who choose to under-resource Connacht.

So while one does feel for Connacht in losing a player that they have developed and brought to prominence, there is movement in the other direction.  Connacht were the beneficieries of Leinster’s scouting when they signed sturdy tighthead prop Nathan White this summer.  It would be no surprise to see a couple of Leinster’s younger players pitch up in the west next season (Jordi Murphy for example), and perhaps one or two of those signed from Connacht in the last couple of seasons will return there.

We don’t expect Connacht fans to be happy about the news.  Munster fans will probably be even more unhappy, but should probably ask themselves how they’d feel if David MacSharry signed for them tomorrow.  For Leinster fans, the news is massive, going a long way to shore up what looked a significant hole in their squad.