Free Pass

In the aftermath of Connacht’s win at Thomond Park, Murray Kinsella did a fantastic piece of analysis on Connacht’s skillset – and one worth reading if you haven’t done so yet. It has been a consistent feature of Connacht’s play this season – good on-pitch awareness and skillful play executed well. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the other provinces, who continue to stink the place out.

The most pungent right now is Munster, who followed up the defeat to Connacht with a lamentable defeat away to the Dragons. Without a doubt, missing their best two players (POM and Conor Murray) is a big blow for Munster, but the on-pitch ineptitude was pretty shocking – bar a questionable (at best) TMO decision, they never looked like beating either Connacht at home or the Dragons away. And, with all due respect to our Western Brethren and Stephen Jones’ local Pro12 muckers, that’s quite a come down for Munster.

So, you’d think everyone would be up in arms about it, asking tough questions about where they are going? What the gameplan is? Whether such an abundance of turnovers and gormless attacking is worthy of criticism? Not a bit of it – on Second Captains yesterday and in the IT today, Gerry was at pains to pin Munster’s issues on a host of extraneous factors:

  • “The Dragons have a decent home record and Rodney Parade isn’t an easy place to go” – cut me some slack, provinces would view this as a chance for 5 points in recent years
  • “Munster suffering more than anyone from fans’ post-RWC hangover” – not sure of the science behind this, but in 2007 and 2011, Munster seemed rejuvenated by having their Irish players back
  • “We know how hard Limerick has been hit during the recession” – not downplaying the impact of a savage recession, but it’s been pretty much nationwide, and the economy has been improving for three years now
  • “The 7.45 kick-off on a Saturday night in December isn’t helpful.” – really? A few years ago, Gerry was complaining that Munster didn’t get enough Saturday night kickoffs due to “English arrogance”

When we talk with Munster fans, we hear a very different suite of concerns, and we can’t help but feel a concerted effort is being made to avoid asking tough questions of our native coaches. When Rob Penney was Munster coach, Wednesday Night Rugby on Off The Ball with the now-SC team was at times a long diatribe against Penney’s selection/tactics from Thornley and Wood, yet there was nary a mention of any questions for the coach to answer when McDevitt had Gerry on yesterday. Equally, when Matt O’Connor was Leinster coach, he was the lightning rod (correctly, certainly by his second season) for criticism. Now, it’s just a collection of things that Foley can do nothing about – although there is a pretty coherent argument that dropping attendances are directly related to the faire on offer, which is not being explored.

Thing is – no-one wants to just beat up on people just for the sake of it, particularly when they have the status the likes of Axel and Leo Cullen have, but if we want our native coaches to develop, we surely need to hold them to account honestly. And in a world where Pat Lam has the likes of Denis Buckley and Ally Muldowney playing like All Blacks (sorry for using the term, but we feel it is appropriate here), Foley really should be doing better with the players he has, many of whom Lam would kill for. Time for some honest discussion.

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Ulster’s Resurgence

Leinster’s season is over after losing comprehensively to Ulster on Friday night in Ravers. It was an opportunity to back up their performance in Toulon – if indeed it you believed that performance to be as good as some claimed it was – and the opportunity was missed. Sure, Leinster were always going to struggle in the last 20 minutes after a tight turnaround and extra time last week, but they only played for 10, after which Ulster owned the ball and controlled the game with ease.

Worst of all for Leinster, it is another defeat in a sobering run where they have won two out of ten matches. They have lost the winning feeling. Last season and earlier in this, for all the dour, error-strewn rugby on display, they at least had the nous for how to win matches. They came out the right side of the scoreboard in any number of tight games; the trend has reversed, and they now find themselves under pressure to hold on to fifth place, and could yet find themselves in a playoff to ensure they are in the Champions Cup next year. With respect to Embra and the Scarlets, it would amount to an embarrassment, and surely the last nail in the coffin for the O’Connor regime.

As for the good ship Ulster, it sails on. They hardly fired a shot in Europe this year, but that would all be forgotten if they won the Pro12. At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, it is remarkable what a difference having three of their best forwards back playing can make. Remarkable insight, I’m sure you’ll agree, but Dan Tuohy, Chris Henry and Iain Henderson are such a step up in quality from Lewis Stevenson, Clive Ross and Mike McComish that the side cannot help but be transformed.

Another key to their form is the resurgence of Paddy Jackson, who was outstanding on Friday night. With Ian Madigan’s confidence bound to be at a low, Jackson surely comes back into the reckoning for not just the World Cup squad, but the test 23 on this form. While Jimmy Gopperth made a couple of terrific breaks which look amazing, they are ultimately no substitute for an ability to consistently get the backline moving on to the ball in a threatening manner; something Gopps has struggled with all season, but which Jackson accomplishes with natural grace. Subtly timed passes at the right height and pace for the receivers may not look as flash as running 30m and breaking tackles, but over the course of 80 minutes they add up to a lot more. It’s notable just how much Ulster get Bowe and Gilroy into the game, and the result is that Gilroy – another who could come back into the international picture on form – is the league’s leading tryscorer. He’s got his mojo back.

Whether they have the depth, or the quality at No.8, to mount a serious challenge in Europe next year is open to question, but for now that doesn’t really matter. It’s all about winning the Pro12. For all the progress over the last few years, they’ve yet to win anything, frequently losing their composure once the competition switches to a knockout format. Last year they struggled to convert pressure into points when in the red zone. This year they have looked more efficient, with the backline a potent threat.

At this point, they look pretty unlikely to lose to anyone at Ravers, and with a guaranteerd home final, it would seem that winning the big (ish) one requires one big away win out of maximum two attempts; they must either win in Scotstoun to ensure they force Munster or the Hairsprays to travel north, or failing that, go to Thomond Park to beat Munster. Neither is in any way easy, but Ulster are one of the few teams for whom a trip to Thomond Park brings little fear, and they have had some notable results there in recent years. They are the team in the tournament with all the momentum, and the final being in Ravenhill should only add to their motivation. And they have Iain Henderson.  They can’t lose, right?

Just What Was That?

When we heard the news that Conor Murray was going to miss the trip to Globo Gym and their 4G pitch (bet you hadn’t heard Sarries had one, had you? The Irish media don’t dwell on it much), any lingering hopes we had that Munster could eke out a win pretty much disappeared.  On the eve of the game we tweeted that Egg Chaser was predicting a drubbing by Saracens but Palla was going for more of a bloodless coup.  It turned out to be both.

Munster were routed in every facet of play – the scrum, which had creaked under BJ Botha all season, was marched backwards. By Mako Vunipola! The breakdown was a breeze if you were a Saracen – every ruck resulted in nice easy ball, whereas when Munster had possession, poor Duncan Williams, hardly blessed with decisiveness at the best of times, had opposition forwards all over him. The lineout was a fiasco. Munster’s kicking game took no account of the Allianz Park surface. Their big players were not a factor. Munster simply could not get into the game.  Any time they had a platform they made a mistake.  Saracens are a good side, one of four sides (Toulon, Clermont and the Saints being the others) who will not be happy unless they win this competition, but the scale of Munster’s humiliation was frightening to behold. Just how did it come to this?

It was all neatly encapsulated by the two trademark BT Sport-mid-match interviews with coaching staff.  Mick O’Driscoll’s vox-pops sounded just as Saracens were in the process of gaining 30m and setting up the platform that would result in their first try.  It gave the impression of a man fiddling while Rome burns.  At around the 60 minute mark, Saracens’ Paul Gustard was asked to discuss the victory in waiting and tried to convince those watching at home that it wasn’t done yet, but you could tell from his demeanour that he knew the game was won.

It’s been a miserable first half-season for Axel Foley in the job he has worked so hard to get – the brave and the faithful can live with indifferent league form, especially when it comes sweetened with two thumping victories over the arrogant Ladyboys from Dublin, they can live with defeats to sides as good as Clermont and Saracens, but Munster fans are wondering how the team can go out so far off the mental pitch required for a game aptly described by Axel as one with “no tomorrows”. They had a tough pool, no question, but it wasn’t in the script needing a last minute drop goal to beat Sale, or losing their home unbeaten record to French teams, or to lay down so meekly against a team perfectly placed to make Munster bitter. Rob Penney’s teams might have benefitted from kinder draws, but any European exit was with their heads held high, making a higher-quality team sweat buckets before getting over the line.

Penney himself never got an easy ride from the press – the stuttering league performances were seen as evidence he didn’t fit, and the wide-wide games with Donncha O’Callaghan popping up on the wing before Munster had “earned that right” were scoffed at as an alien style imposed on an unwilling team. When Munster did resort to a fruitier forwards-based effort and won, the credit went to the players. When Penney’s contract wasn’t renewed and Axel Foley was given the job, many felt Penney would be glad to be out of there – getting not much credit for dragging a transitional team to successive HEC semi-finals. But no Penney team ever capitulated like Foley’s Munster did at the weekend, and it makes you wonder where the camp is right now – when Paul O’Connell is making elementary errors and Peter O’Mahony is anonymous for 60 minutes, it needs to to be asked why the players aren’t producing.

Is it the personnel? Well, it’s a very similar squad to the one that made last year’s semi-finals – POC might be a year older, but Murray is if anything even better, players like Dave Foley, Duncan Casey and CJ Stander are much improved, and Ian Keatley is having his best season as a professional. The centres are different, but hey, what’s new? It’s more or less the same panel.  Injuries?  Sure, Varley and Sherry are a miss at hooker,. but Casey has played well enough to be a minor cause celebre when he didn’t get picked for Ireland in November.  Keith Earls hasn’t been fit, but he missed a lot of rugby last year, and if anything the backrow options have been enhanced by the return to form of Tommy O’Donnell.

Is it the gameplan? The narrow forwards-based plan is certainly more like (cover your ears) “traditional Munster values”, but then again, so is winning important games in Europe, as is producing the type of clinical control exhibited by Saracens on Saturday. Their most-talented youngster, JJ Hanrahan, has tired of not playing and has flounced off to Northampton – Foley pronounced himself “mystified” then picked Dinny Hurley and left Hanrahan kicking his heels for 76 minutes.

Is there something else? It feels like raking up old muck, but when emailgate happened, most of the punditerati were on the TV and the radio to say it was much ado over nothing and the squad would quickly move on. All except Bernard Jackman that is, who said it would destroy the dynamic in the dressing room and take a very long time and hard work to move past – it’s important and relevant because Jackman was the only pundit asked who actively coaches a proper side – Grenoble, currently sixth in the Top 14, and with a good case to be a better side than Ulster, Munster or Leinster. Maybe the squad just hasn’t move on yet.

Four years ago, the last time Munster failed to make the quarter-finals, the coach had the Week 6 balm of a home game against an average English side – last time Lahn Oirish, this time Sale Sharks – Munster will want to see an angry response to get some mojo back, for what it’s worth. Then the real business gets underway.  McGahan used the ensuing Pro12 campaign to rebuild and made some changes, notably bringing in Conor Murray and James Cawlin for Strings and Leamy, and Munster went on to win the Pro12. It’s imperative that Munster do something similar – though probably more along the lines of expanding the gameplan than bringing in new personnel – and grab this season by the scruff of the neck. No-one wants the defining memory to be the limp capitulation in Allianz Park.

There Is No Such Place As …

Harlequins! Or: Ospreys! Or: Wasps! Or: Racing Metro! And, of course, Saracens – as we will doubtless hear tired repititions of for the rest of this week. But the existence, or otherwise, of a place called Saracens is completely irrelevant to the game this weekend. The club itself is as stable as it has been since Nigel Wray got involved – they are close to celebrating two years in Allianz Park, where they consistently attract 8,000-9,000 for Premiership games, and Mark McCall is approaching four year of quiet excellence as supremo.  And I hear the tannoy rings out clear as a bell.

McCall has finished 1st in the league three times out of four (once helped by half a season of Brendan Venter), won the grand final itself once, and was a TMO call away from doing so again last year. In the HEC, Saracens might have been memorably outclassed by nouveau riche arrivistes Toulon last year, but they thumped big game chokers Clermont Auvergne in the semi-final, feeding them an ugly forty-burger. The previous years saw losses to Toulon and Clermont in the semis and quarters respectively.

The squad itself is stable and well-balanced, and has quality throughout – the pack is as strong as you would expect from a Premiership side, and there are internationals in most backline positions. They are a proper club, like it or not, and the fact that Munster is a coherent geographic entity that you can be from will not be a decisive factor in the game.

But what factors will be decisive? Saracens have been defeated only three times in two year at Allianz Park – twice to the Northampton Saints, and once (when depleted by the Six Nations) by London Oirish. They defeated (and scored four tries against) Clermont Auvergne there in Round 1 of the ERCC while Munster laboured to a last minute victory over Sale Sharks. This won’t be a matter of turning up, singing louder, and letting the cowed Britons bend the knee – an actual gameplan will be required.

And they need to win – before the season, we expected this pool to come down to bonus points, but its not going to happen – Clermont’s win in “Tomond” means that someone will finish with 5 wins, someone with 4 and someone with 3. If Munster are to avoid being the ‘3’, this is the one they need to win.

First, discipline – don’t give Saracens easy points. Saracens are the top points scorers from the boot in the Not-So-Boshiership, scoring 195 points in 13 games – a neat average of 15 points a game. With a front row of, at best, Cronin (just back from injury), Casey and BJ Botha, there is a risk Poite will earn further ire by rewarding the dominant scrum (likely to be Saracens), as he tends to do. But that is out of Munster’s control (largely) and can only be managed, as opposed to turned on its head. But if Munster start giving away breakdown penalties in their own half, the jig is up – even an easy 6 points to the boots of Charlie Hodgson or Owen Farrell (both kicking 80% this season) is likely to be insurmountable, the margin of error being very slim.

Regular viewers of Saracens (we don’t see enough of them – we have yet to sup from the poisonous chalice of BT Sport, but that’s likely to change, given how great the Boshiership is to watch; yes, really) tell us that they are vulnerable to being attacked through the centres, utilizing quick hands and smart lines. Something that Dinny Hurley brings to the table, for example. Wait, what? Joking aside, a Munster selection with JJ Hanrahan at 12 is one that Saracens won’t like to see. With potential wingers of Keith Earls and Simon Zebo, the last thing Saracens will want is someone who can get them the ball. A selection of Hurley will signal an attacking gameplan whose scope barely extends beyond the fringes of the ruck. Saracens will treat this as meat and drink, and is almost certainly a losing hand.

The first game between these sides was as tight as the proverbial duck’s arse until Rhys Gill went and did something stupid. Munster profited from his absence to score the game’s only try and tag on an extra three points, which ended up being the difference between the sides. The game was essentially lost by something dumb from Saracens. Flip the venue to England, and look at the side’s intervening form, and Saracens are deservedly favourites – for Munster to win, they can’t rely on Lady Luck in the form of a bounce of the ball or a silly yellow card. Simply turning up and giving it all isn’t going to cut it – they’ll need a gameplan to take advantage of Saracens’ weaknesses.

Expect the game to be described as a ‘must-watch’ from all corners of the media, and while any do-or-die game involving Munster has a reasonable chance of a dramatic finale, chances are it will be spirit-sappingly dull.  Foley admitted his team needed to ‘not get bored’ executing their game-strangling kicking game in the last match, and expect more of the same here.  Conor Murray put air on the ball 17 times in that game, and we can expect something similar again – assuming he recovers from a neck injury.  The game might not be so much ‘must watch’, unless you’re really into that sort of thing, as ‘must follow’ on your Ultimate Rugby app, which could be the best vantage point, at least until the final 20 minutes which should provide a pulse-raising endgame.

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.

Double Judas

Irish rugby players who go abroad to earn their living generally fall into 2 buckets:

  1. Top class internationals who left at their peak
  2. Those who were not in line for a central contract and were dispensable to their provinces

The former basket consists of Jonny Sexton – Sexton was pissed off at the union’s slow pace of negotiations two years ago, felt insulted at their initial offer and flounced off to (nouveau riche) Racing. Since then, the Union have upped their game, and have kept the likes of DJ Church, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip in Ireland despite strong French interest – and Sexton himself is returning next season. The Sexton move was a game-changer that left no-one happy and has brought about earlier contractual negotiations, longer contracts and private investment with a goal to keeping the international squad based at home. In 2008, Tommy Bowe left Ulster for the Hairsprays, but at that stage his international career had stalled and Ulster were an utter shambles that he wanted out of.

In the second category, there exists various former internationals who were offered a better contract abroad (Tom Court, Tomas O’Leary), journeyman pros (James Downey, Gareth Steenson) and younger players looking for a new start after their careers stalled at home (Chris Farrell, Adam Macklin, James McKinney, Conor Gilsenan, iHumph). In all these cases, they are players who were not mapped internationally and were expendable to the domestic game.

The potential transfer of JJ Hanrahan from Munster to the Saints, as reported by Gerry yesterday, falls into neither of these buckets. Hanrahan is a former underage (schools and under-20) star who is generally seen as the future in the province – he is clearly behind Sexton, Madigan, Jackson and Keatley right now at international level, but has bags of potential and certainly appears to have the skills to grow into a key player for Munster, and maybe Ireland. But it seems he doesn’t see it that way – he seems to feel he is trapped on the bench and not getting adequate opportunities. As Gerry pointed out, last year he started 11 games at outhalf and came off the bench in every HEC game – this year he has started twice and was left kicking his heels while Munster came a cropper in Thomond last week.

Hanrahan is not only playing second fiddle to Ian Keatley, which we can understand at least even if we don’t always agree with it, but being out of the team at the expense of Denis Hurley is quite another matter – Hurley is a good honest pro, but apart from bashing up the middle, doesn’t offer a huge amount in an attacking sense. Hanrahan has been rooted to the bench, but isn’t even getting used as an impact sub, unlike under Penney last year.  It’s been one of the season’s curiosities because, to our eyes at least, Hanrahan has played well when he’s been let on the pitch.

Also since last year, Munster have signed Tyler Bleyendaal, an almost exact replica in positional terms of Hanrahan, Andrew Smith, another bosh it up the middle centre and Pat Howard, a medical joker who got straight into the team. The new head coach, Axel, has talked a good game about moving the ball through the backline and playing creative centres, but has reverted to reductive boshing in the big games – Hanrahan hasn’t got a look in. Being rooted to the bench while Munster trundled the ball backwards against Clermont for 80 minutes must have been galling – he might not have made any difference, but the sight of Plan B being the same as Plan A (bosh it up the middle) must have made him wonder. You sense that Hanrahan just doesn’t fit into Axel’s plans right now.   Much has been made of Hanrahan starting the season with an injury, which restricted his gametime in the early part, but it’s December now.  He played back-to-back games at 15 against Ulster and the Dragons – last we saw of him he was putting in a classy grubber kick for a try against Dragons – but still they wouldn’t let him on against Clermont.

And now Northampton have come sniffing with an offer (apparently £150k) that would dwarf anything Munster could offer, given general debt levels and the fact that he is seen as a reserve – it’s decent wedge for an essentially unproven player. Hanrahan is clearly a young man in a hurry – he is six months younger than his underage team-mate Paddy Jackson, who has been Ulster starter for two and a half years and has nine Ireland caps, and you wonder does Hanrahan compare himself to Wee PJ. Its a slightly different scenario for a number of reasons – PJ was outhalf for the under-20s when both were in the team – and Jackson also captained the side. PJ was coming from a different place, and Ulster coaches couldn’t wait to start him – he debut-ed just a month after turning 19, almost four years ago. Also, the Ulster jersey fell into PJs lap following some rubbishy performances from iHumph in Munster and Connacht in 2012, after which iHumph left the building, leaving Jackson unopposed as starter. This was both a blessing (allowed him to grow into the jersey without serious competition) and a curse (he effectively immediately became the number three outhalf in Ireland and was parachuted into the national team in non-ideal circumstances with non-ideal results).

Axel responded to Gerry’s story and talked about preparation and injury recovery, which is correct and laudable, but then topped it off by saying “we were considering introducing him at inside centre but Denis Hurley made a couple of breaks”. Talk about depressing – if Hanrahan does leave, you have a smoking gun right there – reductive and conservative rugby in the biggest games where a couple of minor breaks (that we must have missed – even ESPN had Hurley carrying just 5 times for 10 metres) as part of an ineffective gameplan trumps the potential to open the game up and run around Clermont instead of at them. After email-gate was classified as careless, letting the Golden Boy leave for want of opportunities would be a bit of an indictment on Axel’s squad management.

If Hanrahan does move, not only is it a disaster for Munster, where Hanrahan looked the most natural backline talent since Anto Horgan Keith Earls, but for Ireland, where the model of keeping young players at home and husbanding them through province (Pro12 then HEC/ERCC) to national training squad to national team is being challenged. Our top youngsters taking off to Northampton is not part of the plan. On the bright side, the Saints would not be paying him £150k a year to sit on the bench and give Stephen Myler hugs – he will be getting paid to play for one of the top teams in a league where he will be directly facing some excellent players – game managers like Nuck Evans and “Faz”, creative talents as George Ford, Charlie Hodgson and Danny Cipriani, and also potentially Jimmy Gopperth, who recently killed Bambi.

If he does leave, the best case is that Hanrahan wins the Saints starting jersey and is playing in a team potentially better than any Irish province, and who will be challenging for domestic and European silverware. Joe Schmidt cannot ignore him, he gets called up for Ireland and levers that into a bumper central contract and comes home as Munster starter in 2/3 years. Or, he does a Geordan Murphy and settles down and spends his career in England – his form demands selection and he picks up 50+ caps over a long career. Going further down the outcome chain, he does what a previous Munster prodigy did and spends his career in the Premiership without ever nailing down a place in the Ireland squad – the Jeremy Staunton path. Worst case, he can’t get shirt, sets his career back two years and limps home with his tail between the legs having stalled in his development – this is probably unlikely, he’s clearly talented and ambitious.

This career path is a little bit of an unknown, and carries risks for Irish rugby’s professional development model, but that’s not Hanrahan’s concern – he feels like he has more to offer and isn’t getting the chances at Munster. Nothing’s done yet, and he could yet sign on for Munster.  This could all have a happy ending, but even then, it has shone a spotlight on a curious unwillingness to embrace talent over the mundane.

Get Back To Us After Round Five

Amid the turbulent birth of the new tournament, much has been made of the supposedly more competitive pools the new 20-team format has thrown up. As has become customary, it’s an argument that’s only half-true, and one which supporters of Bruce Craig and his chums are keen to stretch to its limits.

On the face of it, there is certainly at least some truth to it. Missing in action, in effect, are Edinburgh, Zebre, Connacht and Cardiff, none of whom are exactly heavyweights who would have much expectations of making the knockout stages.

But a closer look at last year’s results reveals that all bar the hapless Zebre made a significant splash in the competition.

  • Cardiff finished second in their pool with three wins, including being the only team to beat Toulon in the competition
  • Edinburgh managed three wins too, a big one at home to Munster and even a rare win on the road, against Gloucester
  • Connacht also managed three wins, including one of the most remarkable results in the history of the competition, away to Toulouse – admittedly the other two wins were against the Zebras, and they got fed a brutal 58-burger by Globo Gym. But they still beat Toulouse away!

Indeed, the worst performers in the competition, outside of the Italians, were a surprisingly useless Ospreys, Perpignan, who went on to be relegated from the Top 14, and Racing Metro, all of whom could muster just one win each. Ospreys and Racing Metro are back this year (and to be fair, are expected to do much better this time around – helped by being in the same pool as Treviso!) while Perpignan have been replaced, in effect, by Wasps, who won the playoff to be the 20th team.

The truth of the matter is that the pool stages have not been as exciting in the last three years, with most pools more or less decided going into round six, and relatively little at stake in the final week; even the running order of the top eight seemed largely pre-ordained. We wrote a piece about this back in January. In fact, the pools were so easy to predict, even we could get seven quarter-finalists right in our preview for last year, and don’t really expect a mid-tier team to make a run from the pack this time around either.

So will the pools be more competitive this year? Squeezing the talent from six pools into five should have an impact, but it is up to the middle-tier teams to show that they can take enough points to put the top seeds under pressure. In the article linked above we noted that the lack of round six hoopla was not so much down to the likes of Zebre being completely useless, but the fact that the second-tier teams haven’t been good enough to put pressure on the top dogs by accumulating enough points over the full six weeks.  The ‘more competitive’ argument appears to make a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes a pool competitive: it’s how closely matched the top two or three teams in the pool are, not how far off the next rung the fourth team is.

Last year, Gloucester were a hopelessly inadequate opponent for Munster, while Harlequins and Montpellier took an almost laissez-faire approach to the tournament. Northampton had their day in the Palindrome, but were too hot-and-cold over six rounds. Toulon, Toulouse, Leinster and Clermont breezed through their groups without great pressure from beneath. Munster and Toulon could even afford to throw in ridiculous defeats and still qualify with a round to spare. This year, it is up to the likes of Harlequins, Wasps, Bath, Montpellier, Racing Metro and Sale Sharks to show that they are genuinely more competitive and can make the likes of Gerry Thornley, and ourselves, eat our words.

The proof of the pudding will of course be in the eating and after round five, we will return to assess just how much is at stake in the final round, and judge accordingly. Having four less teams does mean one thing – genuine knock-out rugby starts early – by our reckoning last year, once Ulster beat Montpellier away (14th December), the eight quarter finalists were essentially decided. This time around, we’d be stunned if Clermont-Saracens and Ulster-Leicester aren’t relevant in the last round- and the fixtures on the first day already feel must-not-lose for the Tigers and Sarries. And if Munster’s pool is decided by any greater margins than a post-41,000-phase-86th-minute-bonus-point try against Sale, set against the backdrop of a weeping RTE commentary team, we will be disappointed.

Whatever about more competitive pools, one thing that certainly hasn’t changed is the wildly unbalanced nature of the pools.  Pools 1 and 3 are crammed full of talent and the rest are decidedly bantam-weight by comparison.  The newly domestic-based seeding system, based on one year’s domestic results, where Glasgow found themselves in the top pot and Toulouse in the bottom one, is undoubtedly responsible.  The short-term nature of the seeding is the polar opposite of the generously long-term nature of the previous system, whereby Biarritz maintained a perma top seed status (right from the first ranking-driven draw in 2008-09) due to a couple of finals and being drawn with Aironi/Zebre every year – until they dropped out entirely because they were hopeless. We’re not clear on whether this seeding system will persist or whether the performances in the European competition will count towards the seedings of future tournaments.  Anyone?

Perception is Reality

It’s funny how one game can change the perception of a team. Especially when it’s Leinster vs Munster – for all the two provinces successes, they still measure themselves against one another. It’s pretty tough to remember before the two most famous of their clashes, but in both cases, perceptions after the game were diametrically different to those before:

  • 2006: Before the game, Munster were thought of as having lost their best chance to win a HEC when losing an epic semi-final to Wasps in Lansdowne Road. Leinster were coming off a most stunning second half of attacking rugby in Toulouse (an actual fortress back then) and were slight favourites going into a game where it was “how do you stop Leinster’s razzle-dazzle back play?” Post-game, Munster morphed in an unstoppable machine of forward power and passion, and Leinster became the ladyboys
  • 2009: Leinster were still the ladyboys – they’d tightened up up front, but couldn’t score tries and were liable to lose to a Castres or an Embra and not one to put any money on. Munster were double European champions who had just hammered the Hairspray Glacticos in the quarter-finals. The hubris was in overdrive, but then 80 minutes later, Munster had chinks in the armour – now they were an ageing team whose aura was punctured, while Leinster were a force to be reckoned with.

Nobody’s saying this game will prove to be as landscape-shifting as those, but the comprehensive nature of Munster’s victory at least passed an unwanted torch up the N7 for the next few weeks.  On Friday, Leinster had had a scratchy start to the season, but Munster were supposedly bordering on crisis – management’s feelings on some fringe squad players had gone public and it felt like the squad hadn’t quite managed to forget about it. They had lost in Thomond twice, in front of meagre attendances and only managed to beat hapless Eye-talians.

Now? Well, Munster are back to porridge – a pack whose feral intensity cannot be matched, driven on by the personality of Paul O’Connell and led by the general behind the pack – this time not a 10, but a 9; Conor Murray. The hard-working backs chip in, but it’s all about the piano shifters. And CJ Stander?!  What a find.  He looks increasingly like the real deal. And who cares about the early season messing about? Don’t worry about the Ospreys or whatever, we can do it when it matters. We got this one.  Was it ever any different?

It was remarkable how Munster got across the gainline in nearly every phase, cleared out brilliantly, and presented the ball quickly. When the pack deigned to let the backs have the ball, Murray distributed and kicked superbly, putting up contestable box kicks (which Munster invariably eventually won) and showing up the callow positioning of hipster’s choice Mick McGrath. Dinny Hurley had an excellent game, fixing the Leinster centres and making space for Keatley to orchestrate yet more gainline success. They were more disciplined than the four – four! – yellow cards suggests. The first was for cumulative penalties in Leinster’s half, and the fourth in garbage time. Bird-brained pair BJ Botha and Dave Foley conspired to give Leinster a thoroughly undeserved toehold in the game, but predictably they couldn’t take advantage.

And Leinster? Well, Leinster are the ones bordering on crisis now. They weren’t exactly in a fantastic place before the game, but they were so utterly dominated at the breakdown and now have been left with more injuries and selection issues (not of the good sort) in several positions. Jimmy Gopperth, for once not having an armchair ride behind a dominant pack, was abysmal – his passing was all over the place and his kicking aimless and often pointless. The nadir came when he kicked the ball twice – twice! – down the throat of Munster’s outside backs in oceans of space when Leinster were two – two! – men up. Barnesy remarked that Gopperth panicked, and that’s fair – he crumbled under pressure. Matt O’Connor has hoisted up the Gopperth flag, but even he has to reconsider based on that performance – Madigan might a little wilder, but if your pack is going backwards, Gopperth effectively offers you no game-winning options. As Keynes might have put it, when your outside half plays himself off the team, you change your opinion.

At the breakdown, Leinster were blown away – Dom Ryan finished the game as the team’s leading tackler, but had no discernible impact on the game, bar a few Hollywood tackles on Robin Copeland. On paper Leinster looked to have an advantage at the breakdown, with Munster’s backrow stacked with ball carriers, but that was turned on its head. Leinster are really down to the bare bones – Jordi Murphy can’t return quickly enough, and Shane Jennings would also have made a big difference.

And to add to DJ Church, Jack McGrath, Marty Moore, Sean O’Brien, Murphy, Shane Jennings, Luke Fitz Roysh, Dave Kearndashian on the disabled list is Ferg, Tadgh Furlong and Rosser. Ferg had a horrendous-looking leg injury when some big lump fell on him, and both tightheads limped off looking uncomfortable.  Even Joe Schmidt’s Super-Duper All Conquering Leinster wouldn’t have been able to withstand such an injury crisis. And this iteration of Leinster aren’t super-duper or all conquering.

In weeks ahead, what looked like a group of death in the ERCC will now be approached with confidence by Munster (though it’s still pretty horrible), whereas Leinster’s gimme group suddenly appears daunting with a decimated pack and no direction to speak of. Funny how perceptions change innit?

Postscript: for this Ulster fan, the game has to be commended for being pretty watchable – not something that can be said about recent vintages of the fixture. High fives all round!