Weeks Out… Round Two

That’s your lot for Round One, now the whole tournament goes on hiatus for a couple of months and we reconvene on drier tracks in the April.  Everyone take a deep breath.  As Group stages go, this was up there with the best of them.  Every week seemed to throw up something bizarre.  Indeed, the exact line-up went down to the very last phase.  With Cardiff having a lineout in the Racing 22, but then turning over and Racing almost breaking out for a try of their own, three possible outcomes were in play.  Try for Cardiff, and Cardiff were home to Clermont; try for Racing and Biarritz were playing Munster; no try (as it turned out) and Cardiff were playing Leinster.  Phew.  Here’s our final Heineken Cup Good Week/Bad Week.

Good Week
Frankie goes to Hollywood
It was a good weekend for Frankie. Firstly, in Galway on Friday night, he (astonishingly) wasn’t the worst commentator in view – his lead (whose name we can’t recall) spent the first 79 minutes patronizing Connacht, patting them on the head and thanking them for giving Quins a tough game – the realization that they had won came late in the day, and Frankie crowed like only he can. Then, on Sunday, his big prediction came true. Last Wednesday, he had anointed Peter O’Majesty the HEC Player of the Group Stages in his blog. Oh, how we scoffed, especially since Frankie himself had awarded one of the MOTM’s he referred to. We are big POM fans, but we didn’t agree with the hyperbole. Cue Sunday, and a breath-takingly good performance from the man himself and, while we don’t want to declare him the greatest player in world rugby just yet,  we’re pretty sure he looks the real deal. Frankie the sooth-sayer, we salute you! Wait, stop press, what’s this? Surely not a conflict of interest?
Who said Round Six was predictable?
One of the best (and worst) games of the group stages was in the Sportsground on Friday – a memorable victory for Connacht, and confirmation the Quins bubble has well and truly burst. Despite of the nail-biting and desperate attempts of both teams to lose, the real story on Friday was Gloucester beating 4-times winners Toulouse. Although they have a really gassy back 3, Gloucester are an average Premiership team. Toulouse , despite giving away a ridiculous early try, eased 17-7 in front. But that only inspired Gloucester to cut loose, and the Cherry and Whites ended up winning by 10 points. Make no mistake, this was a massive win – Toulouse are top of the Top 14 and looking menacing. Given Connacht and then Embra ensured Toulouse are not only through, but have a benign route to the semis, this result may be lost in the mists a little, but try telling that to Glaws.
On the Seventh Day, God created Fez
The sense of bathos surrounding Ulster’s quarter-final is a bit strange. I mean, they produced the best Irish performance yet in the Marcel Michelin – eschewing containment for an aggressive and fearless drive to win. Clermont’s initial superiority melted away, and only the impact of the Clermont bench, some uncharacteristic inaccuracy from Pienaar and a lack of true ruthlessness let them down. A win would have, incredibly, meant 3 home quarter-finals for Irish teams (although they would have played Toulouse). Instead, Ulster now await the bear-pit of Thomond Park, and have to address the toughest question of them all: do they have The Mental to win big games away from home? One fears it may be 2013 before we learn the answer, and they need only ask Northampton Saints about how much fun the glass ceiling can be if they don’t answer them correctly.

Bad Week


The Aviva Premiership Moaning Competition


It’s been a poor season for the Premiership teams, and expect a lot of headscratching (and even more carping) over the next week or so.  The Torygraph has already nailed its colours to the mast and wants to see a more meritocratic qualification system.  Paul Ackford has a right old whinge, but never offers any explanation explain why, Sarries aside, the Premiership teams have been so poor this year – Leicester got thrashed in Belfast, Bath in Dublin and Quins blew up when the pressure came on. Northampton Saints epitomised the malaise, with just two wins out of six, and showed a surprising lack of savvy.  They couldn’t see out a potentially seismic win in Munster, and on Saturday, couldn’t stay in the game when they were under the kosh.  Their team is breaking up this summer, and last season looks like their peak, rather than a springboard for success.


Leinster, Cardiff, Toulouse and Edinburgh


All are in the quarter-finals, but all pitted in the away half of the semi-final draw.  It remains the single biggest flaw in the quirky tournament – the difference between getting Toulouse, say, or Clermont home or away is a masive swing, and it’s all decided on pot luck.  This year, though, it mightn’t be as big an advantage as it looks.  Ulster have never played in the Palindrome, and Munster are zero from two there.  It’s a bigger advantage for Leinster to play there than either of the other Irish provinces, but that won’t be happening this year.  Sarries enjoy their trips to Wem-ber-ley, but it’s no fortress – Leinster have already gone there and won, without BOD.  Meanwhile, we’ve no record of Clermont playing in St. Etienne or Lyon.


Declan Kidney


Uncle Deccie will inherit the happiest 52-man squad in Irish history.  Hooray!  A record three provinces in the HEC knockouts, and Connacht finally ending their losing streak.  Munster finally found a cutting edge, Jamie Heaslip is at his marauding best, and Ulster have become men.  But with that comes heightened expectations.  Deccie will have to work extra-hard to turn this group of in-form players into the lateral-attacking, penalty-condecing, gameplan-confused, poorly selected side we’re used to seeing.  The real hard work begins now.

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Irelandwatch: Things Are Grim, But It’s Not 2007 Yet

As the final whistle went at Lansdowne Road, the only positive to take from the game was that there were none left until the real business begins.  No more opportunities to get injured, no need to endure another 80 punishing minutes of lateral passing and one-out runners.  It’s been a grim series for Ireland, with injuries now beginning to pile-up and confidence shattered.  They have been outmuscled upfront, and dull in attack.  Wally and Felix Jones have been lost to injury, while BOD, O’Brien, Kearney, Heaslip and Healy will travel injured.

The question now being posed is, Are we in a worse position than in 2007?  Then Ireland travelled with little confidence after a similarly poor showing in the warm-up games, but at least everyone was fit (and buff!).  Factor in a daft new contract handed out to management, and you begin to get a sense of deja vu.  The answer, though, is a straight ‘no’.  Yes, we are playing badly.  Yes, the warm up series looks misguided now.  No, we won’t beat Australia.  No, we certainly won’t make it beyond a quarter-final.  But a horror show of 2007 proportions is still a long shot.

Four years ago, each player knew which half of the squad they were in: the untouchables or the tackle-bag-holders.  For all Kidney’s flaws of selection and tactics, he has created a little competition for places.  By leaving O’Leary and Fitzgerald at home, he has served notice that nobody is untouchable.  Yes, he looks to have curious soft spots for the likes of Leamy and O’Callaghan, but it’s not quite a two tier squad.

Life in camp can hardly be worse this time around.  In 2007, the players hated the trips to Spala, hated their soulless Bordeaux hotel, hated the food they got served, hated the long training sessions that were a substitute for games, and a deep malaise set in.  This time around, the hip student town of Queenstown beckons, training will be very light, and the players are currently buying presents for each other.  How lovely!  Everyone in the squad is great friends!  What a shame they’re playing like drains.

Finally, and most importantly, Ireland’s draw is nowhere near as arduous.  In 2007, Ireland were pitted against France in Paris, usually a banker, and a superb Argentina side, which turned up with an almost feral desire to stick one on the old boys club that is the established nations.  When Argentina won the opening encounter against France, it was the worst possible outcome for Ireland, as it effectively left us needing to beat Argentina by four tries.  This time we can be confident Australia will trounce all-comers, leaving us in a straight shootout with Italy – beaten comfortably by Scotland last weekend – to qualify. 

So, it’s good news!  Ireland can play rubbish and still get out with at least their dignity intact, by winning just one out of three games against established opposition.  It’ll be very disappointing, and we know this squad is capable of better, but it’s one notch above abject humiliation.

World Cup: Irelandwatch Episode 4

Geordan Murphy tweeted on wednesday night that ‘the obese lady was opening up her vocal chords’.  It didn’t take a genius to read between the lines.  Felix Jones had been given the nod for the France game, Murphy was left to tog out against Connacht, putting Jones in the box seat for the World Cup.  Geordan is of the age profile where, if he doesn’t make the World Cup, he is likely to retire.  Last night’s try-scoring  performance is likely to be his last in green.

The same, only more so, goes for John Hayes.  It looks as if the Irish management are willing Buckley to be the player they believe he can be, and are giving him every chance to show something – anything! – to get him on the plane.  Hayes, unlike Murphy, is incapable of the sort of eye-catching performance that would demand he be picked – indeed the scrum was dire last night, and it’s increasingly a case of ‘who is the least terrible’.  In one sense though you can sympathise with Deccie – Hayes can’t produce any more, at least Mushy might.  If the Bruff man doesn’t make the cut, the game against Connacht is likely to be his last ever game of senior rugby.  In many ways it’s a fittingly fanfare-free way for him to bow out. 

Wednesday’s team sheets gave us – at last – an insight into Deccie’s thinking.  Indeed, it all but named his squad.  For the likes of Jennings, McLaughlin and Fergus McFadden, it effectively shut the door on their World Cup chances (injuries notwithstanding).  Donncha Ryan appears all but certain to go.  It’s a remarkable call – Ryan has just a single Heineken Cup start to his name, and it was one in which he singularly failed to impress (he was immediately dropped for Mick O’Driscoll).  Similarly, Leamy is nailed on in spite of a wild, indisciplined season just gone.  Meanwhile, Kevin McLaughlin has barely been given a chance to stake a claim.  It looked curtains for Jennings too, but Wally’s injury might give him an unexpected chance to impress.  It is probably too late for him, but let’s hope he can at least give Deccie something to think about.

At scrum half, Conor Murray was rewarded for his confident French cameo with 30 minutes against Connacht and is now odds against – Deccie has perhaps decided Boss’s experience is what is required, in spite of never fancying him before. Curious.

France beckons tomorrow, and this time there can be few positives if Ireland lose.  After two defeats, Ireland need to beat a mixed France team (they’re never the same without Dusatoir) to build confidence.  Oh, and some meet and greet with the opposition’s whitewash wouldn’t go amiss either.