Heineken Cup Preview: Pool 3

Teams: Biarritz, Connacht, Harlequins, Zebre

McCafferty Unfairness Factor: Very high. Zebre didn’t even exist last season, and Connacht finished 8th in the Pro12 and got in due to Leinster’s heroics. Biarritz also got in the back door by winning the Amlin, so only Quins actually qualified of right.

Preview: Forewarned is forearmed for Quins here – they got mugged in Galway last year and it’s hard to see a repeat. Ditto for Biarritz, who lost in Aironi two years ago – the Zebre squad is largely the same, and the circumstances in which the Basques and Londoners won’t get four wins from the double bunnies are pretty hard to imagine. Biarritz are certainly more vulnerable, but they have oodles of experience in this competition.

Factor in a couple of home bonus points, and both of the big guns will expect to qualify – as well they should. Quins look better able to hoover up try bonus points, particularly away from home, so, if they split the head-to-heads, we would still expect to see the English champions emerge on top.

From a Connacht perspective, this pool presents both opportunities and threats – Zebre should easily be taken at home, but Zebre will see Connacht as their target for a home win as well. Strange as it may sound, if Elwood’s men come out of this with two wins over Zebre, they will feel disappointed.  We think that’s how it going to transpire – their other opponents look a little too streetwise to be beaten. On l’autre hand, if Connacht do beat one of the biggies, it will immediately supercede last year’s Quins results as their best ever European result. So, feast or famine, but them’s the margins at this level!

Verdict: Quins surprised us last season with their fortitude at the business end of the Premiership season, particularly after their meltdown in the Sportsground. That mental strength, allied to the genius of Nuck Ivans and the shrewd hand of Conor O’Shea, should steer them through as group winners and a home quarter final. Biarritz should come through on their coat tails as one of the wild cards. Connacht to do the double over Zebre – but that’s it.

Exit Stage West

Last night Brendan Fanning broke the news that Eric Elwood is to leave Connacht at the end of the season.  Hugely passionate about the province, managing which must be one of the most thankless jobs in rugby, it appears that the onerous task is taking its toll on him.  Fanning’s article mentioned a tendency to take defeats badly, while Thornley today alluded to him giving almost too much of himself to the role.  The poor fella is exhausted it seems.

Elwood has come to be seen as Mr. Connacht, the personification of modern Connacht rugby, having spent most of the last 16 years either playing for them or on the coaching team in some capacity.  It is in his two-and-a-bit years as head coach, however, that he’s arguably had the biggest impact.  He’s to be commended for his unwillingness to accept the sorry lot with which the IRFU would be happy to lumber the province – the shrewd acquisition of Dan Parks is testimiony to his hard work.  Two years ago such a signing would have been impossible.

He’s also been part of a drive to bring fans through the gates of the Sportsground, presiding over a huge upsurge in season ticket sales, from the low-hundreds to over three thousand.  It’s fine work when you consider the package on offer: watching some fairly stodgy rugby on a dog track, usually in horizontal rain.

On the pitch, he’s improved matters too.  Connacht finished eighth in the league last season and participated in their first Heineken Cup.  They’ve had their ups and downs, and looked to have started this season poorly, but sparked emphatically into life on Friday night with a 34-6 trouncing of Leinster.  Indeed, with Parks expertly piloting the ship and the entire three-quarter line outstanding, it was a highwatermark for Connacht, both in terms of result and the calibre of rugby played.

It’s going to be a tough act to follow.  We generally have little time for those who question whether coaches ‘buy into the [insert region/club/Munster here] ethos’ or understand the [region/club/Munster] zeitgeist’, but in the case of Connacht it is important the incoming coach understands what Connacht rugby is all about, and how steep a challenge it is to coach them.  For certain, nobody had a better grasp of that than Elwood, and an appointment with someone who has or had links with Connacht is likely.

So who are the contenders?

Dan Parks: Connacht is be an ideal role for a young coach to cut his teeth, and the Australian strikes us as the type who might just be interested in kicking off a career here. Whatever you think of Parks 0.5-dimensional play in a Scotland shirt, there is no denying his is a very high class Pro12 player, and has made the most (indeed, far more than anyone expected when he came on to the scene) of his talent. He may just relish the chance, and by going to Connacht in the first place, has already demonstrated his suitability, personality-wise.  Will be on the coaching team in some capacity.

Axel Foley: Foley was widely-tipped to get the Munster job after making such a big impact on the pack last season, but had to settle for a passenger seat in the Penney Revolution. It’s odds-on he will be in the mixer for the head coach job in Munster once Penney departs, but if he would prefer to cut his teeth in a head coaching role somewhere else, then come back, Connacht would be ideal. It’s worth noting, however, that this didn’t work for Mick Bradley, who was overlooked when Deccie went to D4.

Eddie O’Sullivan: One more experienced name that instantly springs to mind is Eddie.  He’s coached there before and presumably has a good knowledge of the province.  For all his baggage, O’Sullivan remains a technically outstanding coach, and it would be a fallacy if his vast knowledge was left to decay outside of Irish rugby. There is no doubt he will have the hunger to repair his reputation after festering/stewing for 4 years. His USA! USA! USA! team didn’t disgrace themselves in RWC11, and indeed, it was felt Eddie scored something of a tactical coup over Deccie when they met Ireland.

Bernard Jackman: Berch is currently coaching at Grenoble in France, and they are making a pretty decent stab at their first Top14 season in a while – sitting pretty in 6th, ahead of such bosh merchants luminaries as Racing Metro, Castres and Perpignan. However, Berch was less than gushing about his time in Connacht in his book, and perhaps some bridges may still be smouldering. If some hugs can be engineered, it’s a possibility.

Deccie Kidney: Deccie will be out of work in June, and will presumably be anxious to renew his relationship with Connacht after studiously ignoring anything Western for the last four years. Perhaps he would welcome a move back to the club game, but we’re fairly certain the facilities at Buccanears don’t measure up to Carton House.

Warren Gatland: What better way to move on to a new challenge after a Lions victory in Oz? Gatty got his coaching start in the West, and has achieved all he can with Wales (and indeed in the Northern Hemisphere) – the combative Kiwi would love to be in a position where potshots at the IRFU are not only smiled upon, but positively encouraged. Let’s hope he doesn’t get too down on Frank Murphy for being unable to measure up to Mike Phillips.

Wayne Smith: Gerry touted Wayne Smith, one of the best coachs in the world, as the ideal candidate to take over at Munster, spend two years keeping the ship afloat, then wrap it up and hand it over to Axel. Presumably he could fulfil the same role as a conduit for John Muldoon, another Elwood-esque personification of Connacht rugby. The question of why a massive name would fly 10,000km to be a caretaker was never addressed before, so let’s not address it here.

2012/13 Season Preview: Connacht

Ah, Connacht.  The plucky men from the West.  The dog track.  The lashing rain and howling wind.  Michael Swift.  The defeats plucked from the jaws of victory.  Johnny O’Concrete.  Yes, it’s time to see how Eric Elwood’s mob can do this year.

Last season: their best in some time.  Heineken Cup rugby came to Connacht for the first time, and while the extra workload threatened to derail their season for a while, they came through in the end, securing a famous win and denying Harlequins a place in the last eight as a result.  In the Pro12, they managed a respectable eighth position, securing seven wins.

Players In: Dan Parks (Cardiff), Nathan White (Leinster),Willie Faloon (Ulster), Jason Harris-Wright (Bristol), Danie Poolman (Stormers), Matt Healy, Mata Fafita, JP Cooney, Ultan Dillane and Brian Murphy (AIL level)

Players Out: Ray Ofisa, Henry Fa’afila, Dermot Murphy, Dylan Rogers, Jamie Stephens, Brian Tuohy (all released or retired),Niall O’Connor (Ulster)

This is Eric Elwood’s third season in charge and his first two have been characterised by a completely opposing attitude to that of his predecessor Michael Bradley.  Where Bradley appeared to accept Connacht’s lot as the runt of the Irish litter, Elwood has bolshily demanded they get a better deal.  Where Bradley targeted specific games and threw his hat at others, Elwood has sought to make Connacht compete in every match.  Where Bradley was orange, Elwood is a pasty-faced Irishman if ever there was one.

Connacht fans grew tired of Bradley’s defeatist approach, but it hasn’t all been easy for Elwood either.  Last year they embarked on a mid-season 14-match losing streak, through five Heineken Cup and nine Pro12 matches.  It included losses in Aironi and at home to Treviso.  At the same time, Bradley’s Edinburgh were on their way to the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup, and playing an eye-catching offload-heavy brand of rugger in the process.  Of course, Bradley’s side barely turned up for league games, with the coach’s ‘targeting’ of games reaching new levels of dichotomy.  It did make one wonder if there was something to Bradley’s approach after all.  Connacht’s small squad looked flogged to death by January.

This season, they’ll have another heavy workload to contend with, because them lads from Leinster have once again put them in the Heineken Cup.  The draw’s been kinder this time, pooling Connacht with Zebre, Biarritz and Harlequins.  Three wins is a very realistic target.

Their squad looks better equipped to perform this season.  Last year Connacht had to learn to cope without the loss of their four best players, who decamped to Leinster and Munster, but this year the playing group has been bolstered rather than compromised.  Recruitment has never been Connacht’s strongest suit, but this season’s new arrivals look well thought through and should improve the squad.

Nathan White had a highly productive spell with Leinster, and by all accounts was well regarded within the squad.  He’ll scrummage solidly on the tighthead side of the scrum, and offers a fair bit around the park.  Right now he’s a much better player than Jamie Hagan.  Willie Faloon may never have quite fulfilled his potential at Ulster, but should get a run of games under his belt at Connacht, and we may see the best of him.  He lacks physicality and runs hot and cold, but if he can improve his consistency he could be the new Niall Ronan.

Another shrewd piece of business is bringing young hooker Jason Harris-Wright home from Bristol. The Bray man had some good games at Leinster and a reasonable season in the English Championship.  Stormers winger Danie Poolman is perhaps the highest profile signing they’ve ever made.  He has some Super Rugby experience, and should add a dash of class to Connacht’s back play.  The best of the bunch is getting Dan Parks from Cardiff.  Parks has his critics, but is exactly the sort of high-percentage goal kicker Connacht have lacked.  When a side loses so many tight matches (they won seven losing bonus points last season, the highest number in the league), every fluffed kick counts and Parks should turn a few more clutch situations into wins this year. We suspect he will be brought into the backroom team in some capacity as well – he is intelligent and we think he might buy into Connacht the way Gatty did back in the late 90s – it’s a superb signing in our view.

An intriguing element of the summer’s recruiting is Elwood bolstering the squad with a number of players from AIL level.  Leo Auva’a and especially James Coughlan are two recent success stories in making this transition, and the likes of Galwegians centre Brian Murphy have been brought in to improve the depth chart in positions where it’s needed.  They’re also, presumably, brought in with the British & Irish Cup in mind, in which Connacht are competing for the first time this year.  It should be a good platform for their high-achieving academy players to step up another level.

Of those already there, we’re particular fans of handsome devil Mike McCarthy, Ronan Loughney, Tiernan O’Halloran and Eoin Griffen, while Gavin Duffy remains a fine player.  If there was one position where Connacht laboured badly last year it was scrum half, where neither Paul O’Donohue nor Frank Murphy offer the kind of swift service to reliably launch Connacht’s backs.  What chance Ireland U-20 starlet Kieran Marmion being fast tracked to the first team?

Verdict: So, it’s going to be another tough season for the Westies, but when has it ever not been?  With a kinder draw in Europe, we can see Connacht winning home and away to Zebre and winning one other home game.  Harlequins will know what to expect in Galway this time, but Biarritz have been known to underestimate the smaller teams.

In the league, it’ll be hard to improve on eighth.  Last season the gap between them and seventh placed Cardiff was thirteen points.  A target of ten wins would be something to aim at, and if they managed it, would be a tremendous achievement for Elwood.

You have to ask where Connacht’s ceiling is, and we may get some insight this year. When you have the same attendance for games against Aironi in the league and Quins in the H-Cup, you have to suspect that’s your maximum fanbase. The off-season and HEC draw could not really have gone any better.  If they don’t break the glass ceiling beneath the other three provinces, three Welsh teams and one Scottish team now, they might not be able to do it at all.

Stealing our jobs

The days might have gone when Irish rugby folk looked on in wide-eyes amazement when Aussies came over to tell them it wasn’t the best idea to booze when recovering from injury, but we still are in thrall to the glamourous tanned lads who, in many ways, tell the story of Irish professional rugby as well as any Irish players. John Langford leading the troops through moats of molten lava in the south of France, Stanley Wright barbecuing Fido before the pound got him, and Clinton Shifcofske fumbling Garryowens on a sodden Belfast night are all part of Irish rugby lore, and Isa, Dougie and Ruan have picked up the baton, albeit in a rather more effective fashion.

In the context of the IRFU coming over all Tea Party about immigrants, we though it would be a good time to review the provinces’ cohort of evil women-stealing job-doing welfare-scrounging diversity-bringing native-educating mind-expanding Johnny Foreigners plying their nefarious trade in green Erin.

Recall for this season Ulster, Munster and Leinster are allowed four NIQs (players who can’t play for Ireland) and one “Project Player” (someone who will be eligible for Irish selection after a period of time), and Connacht are allowed “something else” – the technical term for us not actually knowing the formal arrangement.

Munster

NIQs: BJ Botha (tighthead prop), Wian du Preez (loosehead prop), Casey Laulala (centre), Doug Howlett (ligind winger). Project player: CJ Stander (flanker)

After years of grim recruitment abroad (Nick Williams, Sam Tuitupou, Will Chambers et al), Munster have probably surprised even themselves by ending up with a very useful set of foreigners. BJ came down from Ulster last year, reputedly as the best-paid NIQ in the country, and locked the Munster scrum in a way it hadn’t been in years – along with POC, Rog and Keith Earls, he is one of Munster’s irreplacables. On the other side of the scrum Wian du Preez quietly does the business, and is on a longer contract than Botha, so might be around for a while, as he is the only non-Irish loosehead starting for a province. Not much needs to be said about Doug Howlett – if he can teach Simon Zebo 10% of his defensive positioning knowledge, the Corkman is in for a long career.

Casey Laulala is a more curious case – he is exclusively a 13, which is of course the position that Munster’s best back, Irishman Keet Earls, wants to play from now on. It’s unlikely they brought Laulala, a very useful player, in to cover the games when Deccie has Earls wrapped in cotton wool, so you’d imagine someone will play out of position … let’s hope it ain’t Earls. CJ Stander signed last week, and looks a really good fit – a former U-20 Springbok captain, his strength is his ball carrying, a facet of the game in which Munster were notably deficient last season. The Bulls are unhappy to see him go, but we would eat every one of our hats if ever pulled on an Irish jersey – a man who is being lined up for a long Bok career does not walk away for the prospect of playing with Niall Ronan and James Cawlin – he’ll be back on the highveldt in time for RWC15.

Rory McIlroy Rating: 4/5 – a good tighthead prop (the best-paid import in Ireland), the All Blacks all time leading try scorer and a Springbok underage star? Clearly some prominent local celebrity is funding this cadre. Our money is on Pat Shortt.

Ulster

NIQs: John Afoa (tighthead prop), Johann Muller (second row), Ruan Pienaar (scrum half), Not Nick Williams (tackle bag holder). Project Player: Jared Payne (full back)

Ulster’s cohort of fancy Springboks was the envy of certain prominent parochial journalists last year, and with good reason – Ruan Pienaar was the stand-out scrum-half in Europe, Pedrie Wannenburg wowed the galleries with his sumptuous offloads, Stefan Terblanche wellied the ball into orbit and Johann Muller led the team with granite certainty from the second row. Wannenbosh and Terreblanche have moved on, but the others remain. Pienaar is genuinely one of the rugby world’s superstars, and has played for his country in 5 different positions – his game management from the base of the scrum is matched only by Dmitri Yachvili and Will Genia, and his goal-kicking is lethal and reliable. Muller is one of Ulster’s pack leaders, and sometime forwards coach – the hope is he continues to have huge influence on the younger guys coming through – the turnaround in Dan Tuohy from Gloucester reserve to dynamic international lock is at least partly attributable to Muller’s excellence.

John Afoa, despite a hard time in the scrums in the HEC final (kudos to DJ Church), is a destructive and aggressive prop – at times he seems to be everywhere around the park. He’s come into the spotlight recently as the evil genius who stunts Deccie Fitzpatrick’s development, but he will remain first choice at Ulster next year. Which is something Nick Williams will assuredly not be. The ineffective splinter gatherer, formerly of Munster and Aironi, is a laughably bad signing – he can only play 8 and will be behind the returning Roger Wilson (an underrated player and great bit of recruitment). Let us hope he wasn’t Anscombe’s call, because, if he was, its a pretty inauspicious beginning.

Jared Payne has switched from injured NIQ to project player now that Robbie Diack is Irish. He played only 3 times last season then crocked himself – he had a reputation as a daring counter-attacker in Auckland, and that’s something Ulster missed last year – Craig Gilroy apart, the outside backs were rather bosh-tastic.

Rory McIlroy Rating: 3.5/5 Unless Caroline Wozniacki has spent all of Rory’s fortune, there is no good reason he would fund the signing of Nick Williams – Humph has to take the blame for that one

Leinster

NIQs: Isa Nacewa (winger), Heinke van der Merwe (loosehead prop), Quinn Roux (second row), TBA. Project player: Richardt Strauss (hooker)

Isa Nacewa is mentioned in the same breath as Jim Williams and Dr Phil as the most influential foreigner to grace Irish soil, and rightly so – his outlook and professionalism have coloured Leinster’s approach under Joe Schmidt and his awareness of space is a thing of beauty; the try against Leicester in last years’ HEC quarter-final was one of the best we have seen in person. The rest of Leinster’s cohort are in the engine room – Heinke VDM comes on for DJ Church when he gets tired in big games, and mans the Pro12 shift with power and efficiency – he’s basically a prototype Afrikaner prop who can scrummage well and hit rucks hard. Beside him, little Richard Strauss is finalising the words to Ireland’s Call – he’s  qualified in the autumn and will offer some good hands and the support lines of a former flanker.

Leinster had two vacancies following the departures of Nathan White and Mat Berquist, and the first signing is underwhelming to say the least. While Quinn Roux has talent (he was ahead of Eben Etzebeth in the Stormers depth chart before getting injured this year), but it’s an odd signing – it seems he is over here on a gap year and no more – it stinks of penny-pinching, and Leinster are kicking the second row can further down the road – Leo Cullen is no longer top level, and Devin Toner isn’t quite there – this line is a flashing red light for next season. Let’s hope he doesn’t look upon the gap year as an excuse to head to Coppers on a Monday night. We have no insider knowledge of who the TBA is likely to be (or if there will be one), but if the last two guys the IRFU have shelled out for (Williams and Roux) are any guide, a cheap bosher will be making half-time oranges in D4 next year.

Rory McIlroy Rating: 2/5 Bono it ain’t.  The mystery celeb who is funding Leinster’s expansion has been credit-crunched (Johnny Ronan?) – Quinn Roux is a mystifying signing, and the AN Other at this stage of the year is not a good sign

Connacht

NIQs: Ettienne Reynecke (hooker), Rodney Ah You (tighthead prop), George Naoupu (number 8), Dan Parks (outhalf), Fetu’u Vainikolo (bosher). Project Player: Nathan White (tighthead prop), Danie Poolman (winger)

There seems to be a bit more leeway given to imports in the west – Connacht have 5 NIQs and 2 project players. The standout member is former Scotland stand-off Dan Parks – his international career may have ended in ignominy, but he made the most of his opportunities, and was an intelligent and committed international player, who was outstanding in the 2010 Six Nations. Parks will bring poise and experience to a squad thin on guys who have played at the highest level – he will kick goals and will look excellent in green. It could be a precursor of a move into coaching, and this would be Connacht’s gain – he strikes us a classic progressive Aussie coach – Matt Williams with a monster boot if you like.

The (evil) tighthead prop Nathan White has come in from Leinster. He gained positive reviews from his time in D4 but if he ever starts ahead of Ronan Loughney, Deccie will blame him for Ireland’s woes. Rodney Ah You is another one who can be blamed for the Twickers debacle, given he wears 3. The rest of the squad is composed largely of South Sea boshers, and it’s hard to see how this benefits Connacht, or Ireland – its basically dead money that could be invested in young Irish lads.

Rory McIlroy Rating: 1.5/5 Dan Parks aside, the local boy who made it big worldwide (member of Westlife?) is doing this on the cheap – either that or he has a fetish for the bosh – Ooooooooooooooooooooohh!!

It’s all Jamie Hagan’s Fault for Moving to Leinster

Amid the fallout from Ireland’s Twickenham debacle, one regular lament in the meeja is Jamie Hagan’s move to Connacht.  It goes thus: Ireland could have had another tighthead prop to call on had Jamie Hagan stayed with Connacht this year, instead of moving back to his home province, Leinster.

Hagan was a highly durable near-constant in the Connacht front-row (50 appearances in two seasons), and has found himself marginalised at Leinster, where he has to contend not only with Mike Ross, but also Kiwi prop Nathan White.  Had he stayed at Connacht , he would have had the pleasure of going up against Toulouse, Glaws and Quins props and earning his corn as a Heineken Cup level scrummager, miraculously emerging unscathed from those encounters, instead of togging out for Leinster A in the British & Irish Cup.

The reality of course, is totally different, on any number of counts.  Let us expel a number of myths. 
Jamie Hagan has made a bad career choice.  No he hasn’t.  He has come to Leinster to work with Greg Feek and Mike Ross, the men responsible for turning Leinster’s scrum from a wet blanket that Toulouse pushed around in the 2010 HEC semi-final to something altogether more solid, and occasionally destructive.  The hope is that he will emerge from this a better technical scrummager and a player Leinster can trust to start in high-stakes games.  With all due respect to Connacht’s coaching ticket, we are given to believe it does not feature someone of Feek’s calibre on the books.  His chances of improving to the level required in a technical position are far greater at Leinster.
Leinster are stockpiling, and Hagan is languishing in the reserves.  Leinster have a plan for Jamie Hagan – he is not simply languishing in the A team. They are working with him to improve his scrummaging and fitness.  Those with short memories would do well to recall that Mike Ross barely featured in his first season at Leinster – he spent the year in the gym, where Michael Cheika demanded he get fit enough to get around the paddock.  The following season the Mike Ross we know and love today emerged.
Jamie Hagan has had very little gametime with Leinster.  Another story that doesn’t hold up.  Of Leinster’s three foremost tighthead props, the playing time this season is as follows:
  • Jamie Hagan – 9 starts, 7 sub appearances, 634 minutes
  • Mike Ross – 9 starts, 2 sub appearances, 660 minutes
  • Nathan White – 6 starts, 11 sub appearances, 561 minutes
Hardly banished to the sidelines.  One of those starts was in the Heineken Cup, in the final pool match against Montpellier.  It looked, to us anyway, like a signal that Hagan was firmly in Leinster’s plans, and he did well to hold his own against Leleimalefaga, one of Europe’s more gargantuan looseheads.
Had Jamie stayed at Connacht the Twickers debacle wouldn’t have happened.  Hardly.  If Jamie Hagan had six HEC starts to his name with Connacht, and 13 more in the Pro12, he would still not have made the matchday squad for Ireland v England.  The current 22-man squad rule, daft as it is, means Tom Court would still have made the bench, because he can, in theory, scrummage on both sides. Its also worth noting that being shunted around the Sportsground by Joe Marler and Jean-Baptiste Poux is hardly something that benefits one career – ask Court about Alex Corbisiero and see what he says.
In fact, he might not have made the training squad – after all, he never did before.  Even when he was winning positive reviews at Connacht, Irish management never gave him much encouragement.  He has a grand total of two Ireland A caps, both earned as a replacement in 2011 – Declan Fitzpatrick and Tony Buckley the starters at 3 in the two games.
It’s easier to stand out in an ordinary side like Connacht.  Everyone wants to see the positive in you when you play in a wholehearted, but usually losing team.  If the scrum sinks three times in a match but you make three big carries, chances are people will remember the carries.  At Leinster, teams come to the RDS knowing their opponent has fewer weaknesses.  If they sense one, they will look to extract everything out of it.  The scrum was identified as such on Friday night by the Ospreys, who milked it, and won a tight match.  Hagan was among those culpable.  There’s still work to be done – plenty of it behind the scenes with Greg Feek.

Stop Smoking, Join A Gym, Kick Between Posts

Ah, the festive season! Turkey, toy fights, rum & coke and Barnesy’s autobiography in the stocking – we all know the drill. Oh, and interprovincial rugby.

The twitching corpse of tradition lives on in Irish rugby with the October/December/April series, and there is nothing more seasonal than a few glasses of Pimms at the RDS, a few pints of Guinness at Thomond, a few thumps of the Bible at Ravenhill, or a few lost souls at the Sportsground.

So, how did they go for each of the provinces? We rate the Christmas gifts bestowed by Father IRFU.

Ulster – L Leinster 42-13 W Munster 33-17
On Stephen’s Day, the kids went to RDS and didn’t disgrace themselves by any stretch of the imagination. They looked well-drilled and composed, and were down just 8 points after 60 mins before the predictable onslaught began. After that, they filleted Munster up front and looked very threatening with ball in hand – you had a recollection of last season when a stuttering first half of the season was turned around in the New Year. Ruan Pienaar is now back and with most of the rest of the playoff contenders down key men while Ulster welcome them back, is there a possibility of simliar run to last season? They will look for a semi-final not against Leinster, and hope Andrew Trimble is on to the right man upstairs when they go to the Marcel Michelin.
New Year’s Resolution for 2012: Put together a run of wins.  Ulster are seven points off the playoffs and an extended run is required to propel them up the table.

Munster – W Connacht 24-9, L Ulster 33-17
Something of a curates egg for Munster – a very poor Connacht were easily swatted aside in a game they learned little about themselves in, but they were bossed around in Ravenhill in a game reminiscent of a different era. The scrum was bullied, Duncan Williams was awful, and Ian Keatley looked what he really is – a 10 who is still learning his trade. On a brighter note, Earls was back – and showed beautiful hands for set up one of the tries in the Connacht match. However, judging by some of the performances by the other outside backs, they need three of him. And he is still defensively suspect in a key position. It’s an important few weeks for Munster – falter in the HEC (by which we mean 5 points or less in 2 games) and a trip to Toulouse or Clermont beckons. So, just the right time to have your most dangerous finisher missing tackles in the midfield, eh!
New Year’s Resolution for 2012: Develop an attack.  Their pack have manned up well so far, but their back play is still clueless.  They’ll need to get some coherence for the sharp end of the season.

Leinster – W Ulster 42-13, W Connacht 15-13
In general, Leinster are motoring so well at the moment that even Gerry is conceding they are “almost Toulouse-like”. However, despite the wins, this wasn’t the most satisfactory Christmas in D4 – a very experienced front 8 took far too long to subdue the Ravens, and the main worries (replacing Hines, BOD and Shaggy) are still leaving a too-much-turkey feeling in the stomach. But that’s a measure of the sky-high expectations. They will be hoping Leo Cullen recovers the form of May and not December 2011, and that talk of a double does not get too far out of hand. In truth, Joe could do with expectations being dampened, so he might be a little happier after the Great Escape of Galway. And to be more truthful, if it’s going to be a HEC semi-final trip to Toulouse or Clermont (or Wembley to meet Saracens), they will need their A game, and even that may not suffice in France.
New Year’s Resolution for 2012: Tighten up on D.  Leinster’s two wins showcased their superior squad depth, but they have leaked more tries this season than last.  If they are to achieve back-to-back HEC’s, there’ll be no place for soft tries.

Connacht – L Munster 24-9, L Leinster 15-13
Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose. A shockingly poor display against Munster (it was almost as if they felt it would be impolite to ruin The Bull’s swansong by trying) was followed by a tough and gutsy one against Leinster … with exactly the same outcome – another defeat. Elwood is all optimism but when the focus isn’t there, they are rubbish. The attacking patterns are appalling and they really look drained – the losing sequence is taking it out of them. Given the size and make-up of the squad, Eric was probably hoping for 6 to 7 league wins to bank at this stage. Instead, they have just 3, and despite the fact they won’t lose (m)any players during the 6N, it’s hard to see what will be the catalyst for a turnaround. If Aironi get their freak on, it could be Connacht returning to familiar barrel-scraping territory in April.
New Year’s Resolution for 2012: Where to begin?  Connacht just have to get a win from somewhere to break the losing streak.  Improved place kicking would help.  They travel to Aironi next – lose that and they’re in trouble.

HEC Round Four – Review

The old cliche is that you can never safely predict too much in the Heineken Cup, and it was reassuring to see that it still holds true this week.  Just when it looked as though most issues were virtually settled with two rounds to go, Quins did the unthinkable and won in Toulouse.  It’s not the first supposedly unbreachable citadel this young side has sacked, and it underlines their credentials as a coming force after they appeared to have been scuppered last week.  Here’s our latest good week/bad week…

Good week


Who else? Quins

A remarkable victory for a remarkable team.  When they lost to Toulouse last week it looked like a case of ‘Welcome to the Big League, chaps’.  To turn it around in Toulouse’s own patch a week on was a feat you simply had to stand and applaud.  This may be a year too early for them to win, but they are a team nobody will fancy playing in the knockout stages, for which they now look set to qualify for, either as winners or as runners-up.  It also underlined the importance of having a world class kicker.  Which brings us on to…

Johnny Sexton

While ROG has been grabbing the headlines with his timely drop-goals, Sexton has been efficiently getting on with the business of playing brilliantly.  He bailed Leinster out in Montpellier, ran the show against Glasgow and then delivered back-to-back man of the match performances against Bath and has racked up 63 points in four games.  On Saturday, he showcased the full range of his talents, and was a dream to watch.

Saracens

In poll position in Pool Five and looking in decent nick having done the double over the Ospreys.  Not the flashiest of teams, but they do have a consistent kicker in Owen Farrell and a belligerant set of forwards, which are two of the basic requirements to qualify as contenders.  Creativity is in short supply, with a somewhat predictable backline (Ooooooohhh Brad Barritt was literally centimetres over the gainline there!), but there’s always Schalk Brits to provide a spark. 

Bad Week


Blind Dave Pearson

Yes, it’s Blind Dave’s second appearance in our Bad Week section, and while his first was for bewildering us with reasoning we couldn’t really understand, this is for one of the single most knuckleheaded decisions in recent times.  You know the one, the blatantly obvious Scarlets try that he just walked away from and went back to give them an attacking scrum.  Had they not scored from said scrum, there would have been serious questions asked.  It was a bizarre moment.

Tomas O’Leary

Lordy.  Tomas had actually impressed a little on his recent cameos but this was back to the 2010/11 vintage.  Munster were totally in control until he came on, and promptly fell on to the back foot.  At one stage, his back-and-across crabbing saw him trapped metres behind the gainline and a penalty followed.  He was then extrmely lucky when his ill-judged grubber went out to touch off a Scarlets boot late in the match. 

Connacht

How much heartbreak can a team take?  Strangely, Connacht have saved their best performances for away matches in the competition, and were five minutes from a famous victory over Gloucester until nothing so complicated as a missed first-up tackle let in a late try.  It must be hard to take for a fanbase that so seldom has anything to cheer.  Connacht are the anti-Munster – a team that simply doesn’t know how to win.

Heineken Cup Round 2: The Good, the Bad and the Saints

Good week

Scarlet Fever
We have been banging on about the potential in the young Llanelli side for a while now, and we aren’t the only ones – key Scarlets played important roles in Wales’ RWC success and the potential at Stradey Park Parc Y Scarlets has long been acknowledge. This week, they arrived, filletting last years beaten finalists and wrapping up a 4 try bonus point on the hour. Sure, the Saints were distracted and sloppy and Peter Fitzgibbon was poor, but the Scarlets nullified the Saints scrum and let talent do the rest. Rhys Thomas, Ben Morgan, Rhys Priestland, JJV Davies, George North and Liam Williams were excellent.

Heavyweight Division
Last week, we pointed out how the Heineken Cup seemed to be rather open this year. This week, two of the favourites flexed their muscles – Leinster and Toulouse swatted aside what were expected to be troublesome opponents with ease. Both also had the luxury of making several changes and still looking formidable – they will take some beating this year.

Radge
After last week’s get out of jail stunt from Rog, we confidently predicted it was a stunning once off. And, not for the first time, the man came to his sides rescue in Europe. A nerveless injury time drop goal from the maestro got Munster out of France with a very useful 4 points. In spite of the new blood, the men in red know exactly what needs to be done and when – and they have the perfect executioner. We are at odds as to who is in the driving seat for the pool – but there is no doubt who is the star driver.

Bad Week

Les Autres Francais
Toulouse are HEC bluebloods, and reach the knock out stages pretty much every year – and will do so again this year. In the last two editions, they have been joined by a variety of fellow countrymen – Toulon, Stade, Clermont, Biarritz and Perpignan. This year, they might be a bit lonely in April. Castres and Racing Metro are out of it with two defeats and Montpellier now need to win in the RDS – don’t be surprised to see all three throw in the towel and concentrate on the Top 14 from here. Biarritz and Clermont are in scraps to the death to get through their pools – it doesn’t look like a vintage year for the French.

Northampton Saints
After 80 minutes of this year HEC, the Saints had an away victory nailed and were all set to stay on the radar as one of Europe’s best sides and a team with a bright future ahead of them. 41 phases and 80 minutes later, their European season lies in tatters – torn asunder by Rog and the Scarlets. The nature of some of the Saintly performances – Ryan Lamb (flaky), Dylan Hartley (weak-willed) and Chris Ashton (appalling attitude) and the likely departure of Jim Mallinder to replace Johnno at St Boshington’s creates an air of uncertainty about the future at Franklin’s Gardens. What an astonishing turnaround in 6 days.

No Romance at the Dog Track
It was the biggest night in the history of Connacht, but also one of the toughest.  After a great effort at The Stoop last week, the hope was that they could at least make life uncomfortable for Toulouse, for 50 or 60 minutes anyway.  Instead, they never fired a shot.  Maybe the occasion got the better of them, or perhaps Toulouse were simply too powerful, but Connacht are rarely hammered in their own ground like this.  It should have been a night to celebrate (and in some ways still was), but the old questions about the future of Connacht will be asked all over again this week.

Team in Focus: Connacht

Last season: C. They struggled domestically and failed to build on their AmlinVase semi-final from the year before. Then all their decent players left. However, Leinster winning it all meant they got a backdoor ticket to the HEC.

So far this year: Grinding on in the RaboProLeague – 3 wins from 7. They won’t be too pleased given everyone else has been understrength, but at least new players (of which there are many) have had some integration time.

Prospects: As usual, as soon as any Connacht players impressed, they bailed out of there. Sean Cronin, Jamie Hagan and Fionn Carr headed (back) to Leinster, and Ian Keatley went to Munster. Another bunch of surplus to requirement players from the other 3 provinces stepped into their shoes, but another season of embedding guys who will leave at the first opportunity is Connachts’s lot.

The front row will suffer for the loss of 2/3 of its starting contingent. The fantastically-named Rodney Ah You comes in a tight-head, but its more likely to be Rodney Peep Collapsing Yes You against the big sides. Hooker Ethienne Reynecke came from Sarries to replace Cronin, but its fair to say he isn’t top class. Brett Wilkinson is another Saffa, and is a decent honest loose-head who won’t let you down. Stewart Maguire used to be the a big prospect in the Leinster academy – lets hope he fulfils some hype.

Mike McCarthy held his own in the pre-RWC Ireland training camps and is typical of the current generational of Irish second rows (Paulie aside) – hard working but uninspiring. Connacht look to have recruited well in the back-row – TJ Anderson and particularly Eoghan Grace are young men who once had a promising career and have come West to do a Jirry and get regular gametime to step on. Grace was once in the position Peter O’Mahoney finds himself in – that is the young saviour of an ageing Munster back-row. It hasn’t happened so far, but at least now he has a shirt. Johnny O’Connor and John Muldoon are the grizzled veterans here – O’Connor once had words with Egg Chaser’s younger brother on Egg’s stag in his moonlighting bouncer role, and gained kudos for allowing trousers to remain on head.

Paul O’Donohoe never quite made the grade at Leinster – a couple of starts here and there tended to end when established names came back – he’s still young and possesses a snappy pass. He’ll think a few good few years in Connacht will set him up to return home to perhaps take Eoin Reddan’s place in the Leinster squad – he is not to be underestimated. Former Leicester Tiger Frank Murphy will backup O’Donohoe and is an able deputy. The (very) poor mans Morne Steyn, Niall O’Connor, has joined from Ulster. In Matt Williams final year in Ravenhill, O’Connor kept iHumph on the bench, and he offers a towering boot and defensive solidity. In many ways, its exactly what Connacht need – he will kick goals from anywhere inside the opposition half, and keeping the scoreboard ticking over will be a key component in the hanging-in-there gameplan Connacht generally adopt.

The diamond in the backline is young Tiarnan O’Halloran, the star turn in the Connacht academy’s respectable production line of the last year or 2. The lad is only 20, and can play at centre or full-back. If he continues his progression, there is a fair chance he could be the first Connacht player since Eric Elwood to consistently make national squads. He should get plenty of time this year, and expect him to catch the eye. Hopefully players like O’Halloran do not have to leave Galway to make career progress, but the reality is, without regular HEC football, you aren’t getting international recognition.

Relatively familiar names like Gavin Duffy and Mark McCrea are bog standard Rabo backline merchants. Fetu’u Vainikolo at one stage was a peer of Israel Dagg, but concerns about his positioning led to the Highlanders letting him slide, and he has wound up in Connacht – he could be a real danger and is a like-for-like replacement for Carr, albeit with greater Oooooooohhh factor. Kiwi Benson Stanley was at one stage interested in rocking up to Galway, but rumour has it he confused Connacht with Leinster and didn’t sign when he realised the the difference between the RDS and the Sportsground – and we aren’t talking about the availability of butternut squash focaccia and skinny caramel frappaccinos.

Connacht’s inaugural HEC adventure was kind in terms of the bank balance potential of the draw – European big guns Toulouse will bring their unique brand of brilliance to Galway, and will be joined by Conor O’Shea’s Harlequins and the eminently beatable Gloucester. Toulouse in November will be the biggest and most glamourous game in Connacht’s history, and the exposure alone will be worth its weight in gold. At home, Connacht’s small squad tends to mean that, instead of rotation, they target particular games to make best use of resources – this means they tend to mix heroic home victories with pastings on their travels. Its not always pretty, but you can only work with the tools you have

Verdict: Despite the chopping and changing, the summer has been a successful one for Connacht – season ticket sales has rocketed following Heineken Cup qualification, and the feel-good factor around the province is high. The increased exposure and revenue should help bring through more Tiarnan O’Halloran’s, which is realistically the best way forward for the poor relation of Irish rugby. The need for regular HEC rugby is likely to only be fulfilled through the back door, so young talent is the way forward.

On the pitch, we foresee some schizophrenia in the HEC. Connacht have generally been very competitive at home in the AmlinVase, and might target Gloucester, and should come very close to winning that one. Away, it could be painful. Five match points in the pool would represent a major triumph for Elwood.

In the RaboLeague, Connacht are struggling after 7 games in which every other side has been under-strength. Finishing above someone other than Aironi would ensure a good season at home. The chances of getting back to the HEC rest solely on the shoulder of the Leinster squad, but the increased exposure, revenue and investment from this season will mean it is a good season for Connacht no matter what happens on the field.

The HEC Draw: It’s Complicated

The HEC draw take place on 7th June, and Ye Gods, it’s fraught with complications. As many a kickyball commentator would put it, you’d need a Maths degree to work out the permutations. In all honesty, it wouldn’t hurt.

The pools look as follows, with a Cordite Rating determining the attractiveness, or lack thereof, of each side:

Pool 1 Cordite Rating
Leinster Stench
Toulouse Stench
Munster Whiff
Cardiff Blues Odourless
Biarritz Olympique Slight Whiff
Leicester Tigers Stench

Pool 2
Northampton Saints Stench
ASM Clermont Auvergne Stench
Ospreys Odourless
Bath Rugby Slight Whiff
Harlequins Whiff
London Irish Slight Whiff
Pool 3
Ulster Rugby Whiff
Saracens Whiff
Gloucester Rugby Slight Whiff
Glasgow Warriors Odourless
Scarlets Slight Whiff
Edinburgh Odourless
Pool 4
Connacht Rugby Odourless
Castres Olympique Slight Whiff
Benetton Treviso Slight Whiff
Montpellier Whiff
Racing Métro 92 Whiff
Aironi Rugby Odourless

The rules are thus: there moust be one English team and one French team in each group, and one group will include two English teams (one of which will be Gloucester, as the lowest ranked English side).  None of the other nations’ sides can be paired together.  And because there is only one French team in Pool 2 and none in Pool 3, it means that Leinster and Munster are much more likely to be assigned a French team from the fourth pot.  Put it this way: the only chance they have of getting an Italian team is by drawing Clermont and getting Sarries into the bargain- not an ideal scenario however you care to look at it.

Now, look at Ulster’s perspective.  They can’t be drawn with Leinster or Munster, so they stand a great chance of getting either Toulouse or Biarritz as their top seeds, and failing this, they can also get Clermont from Pool 2.  If this happens they can’t get another French team from Pot 4, and they can’t get Connacht either, so the only teams left are Italian teams.  So, Ulster getting a group like last year is in fact very likely indeed.

As for Biarritz, who apparently fix the draw in their favour every year, well, sadly for conspiracy theorists, they do have a very good chance of picking up an Italian team simply by dint of being French and in Pool 1, both of which are of course self-sustaining (unless that part of the Basque country secedes to Spain).  They can’t get any of their fellow countrymen from Pool 4, so they simply must be drawn with either Connacht, Treviso or Aironi.

So, looking at possible draws the Irish sides can get, we have…

The Good…

Leinster / Munster: London Irish – Glasgow – Castres
Ulster: Biarritz – Bath – Aironi (sound familiar?)
Connacht: Biarritz – London Irish – Glasgow

The Bad…

Leinster / Munster: Northampton – Gloucester – Racing Metro
Ulster: Toulouse- Northampton – Treviso
Connacht: Toulouse- Northampton – Gloucester

… and the Away-trip Friendly

Leinster / Munster: Bath – Edinburgh – Racing Metro
Ulster: Toulouse – Bath – Treviso
Connacht: Toulouse- Bath – Edinburgh

Probably best not to think about it too much and just hope you get to visit at least one lovely city, and try to avoid Northampton, Clermont and Saracens if you can.