Second Five-Eighth

In the Amlin Challenge Final between Northampton and Bath, as the game was running away from Bath they introduced a familiar face from the bench. No, not Peter Stringer; the other one. Gavin Henson. We were all set to have a good old chuckle as Big Gav took the field, but within a couple of minutes something interesting happened; Big Gav gave two gorgeous passes to put runners outside him into space. It was like a momentary glimpse into a parallel universe where Henson was a dedicated professional who had fulfilled his potential.  A tiny kernel of natural tlent remains!

In the past, we’ve often wondered what the point of clubs like Bath signing players like Gavin Henson is; when a player has failed to learn his lessons over and over again, does the time not come when you simply draw a line through his name? But this served as a reminder that some cases, no matter how lost they appear, can be worth a punt [at the time of writing Danny Cipriani has been recalled by England, and show me someone who isn’t absolutely fascinated as to what will happen next].

Big Gav never had the dedication to his trade to make the most of his ability, and it’s a real pity. Henson was never as good as the likes of Stephen Jones claimed he was, but he wasn’t rubbish either.  Yes, he had flaws, and yes he was a real pain, but his distribution, running and kicking game could all be terrific. In the modern era of bosh-‘em-up rugby ‘second five-eighth’-type inside centres who can pass the ball like a 10 are a precious commodity. As if to underline the point, Matt Giteau gave a scrumptious performance as a distributing 12 in the Heineken Cup final the following day. What a sight it is to behold, and what options it gives a team in attack when the 12 can move the ball so effortlessly!

Ireland’s own ‘playmaking 12’ departs the scene this summer, to little fanfare. Underpowered for the modern game and not benefitting from a ‘good face’, Paddy Wallace was fell just short of being a real test player, but for Ulster he was a classy and highly watchable fulcrum in the backline. In the 44-14 defeat to Leinster in the Heineken Cup final he was sublime. Fortunately, he passes on the torch. Stuart Olding has been injured all season, but will hopefully be back next year. He has a job on his hands displacing Luke Marshall (who isn’t a bad distributor either, but is more of a hard-running player in the Gordon D’arcy mould), but is exactly the sort of player Ulster have been lacking this season: think of all those sieges on the Leinster line in the semi-final that came to nothing because they just couldn’t unlock the door. One would have to suspect he’s on Schmidt’s radar too. Given a lack of real pace and huge players, Schmidt made Leinster the best team in Europe based on super-accurate passing of the ball along the gainline. Olding would be a key asset to replicate that at test level.

So there we have it; Stuart Olding, the new Gavin Henson.

Low lie the … inspirational centres

It’s odd that right throughout Munster’s period of dominance of Irish (2000-2008) and European (2006-2008) rugby, they never had a top class centre. The partnerships of Halstead-Kelly circa 2006 and Mafi-Tipoki in 2008 probably were the high water marks, but they have never had a really dynamic centre to release their outside backs. Perhaps this is a function of an historical bullock-and-boot ethos, but it remains a curiousity; and with Earls, Howlett and Jones outside, a top centre is crucial.
So for the third summer in a row, Munster are in the market for a chequebook centre. Two years ago, they signed Jean de Villiiers for what ended up to be one (unhappy) year after the Springbok world champion failed to prove himself to Mick O’Driscoll. Then last year we had the utter disaster that was Sam Tuitupoooooooooooooooohh (why oh why would Munster ever sign someone from Worcester?). This summer, again, it’s back to the drawing board.

The three names being mentioned in connection with Munster right now are Conrad Smith, Jacque Fourie and Isa Toeava. Lets look at each one, plus a few others who Ludd and Axel may wish to consider.
Three who are in the hunt:
Conrad Smith: Smith is probably the best outside centre on the planet, and is hot favourite to wear the All Black 13 shirt for the Tri-Nations and RWC. Smith is a marquee player, and if the NZRU can’t talk him into staying, there would be a queue of French teams willing to sign cheques a lot larger than Munster could afford.
Verdict: Pretty unlikely

Jacque Fourie: Jacque is fondly remembered by all biltong-chewing highveldters for the manly way he ran through a concussed Rog in the second Lions test in 2009. A man who was never unsure of his worth to the world, or of the South African man’s rugby superiority, its tough to see him having the necessary humility to fit in at Thomond.
Verdict: Another JdV in the making

Isa Toeava:

Toeava is a versatile and creative player who can play 10, 12, 13 or 15. There is a lot of traffic competing for not very many outisde back slots in NZ, and Toeava could find himself outside the 30 come RWC time without a good Tri-Nations. If that is the case, it may be a good time to head North, especially with Nonu having signed for the Blues. He is only 25 and would be perfect for Munster.

Verdict: Tony, Tony, sign him up
Three that got away:
Ma’a Nonu: was heavily discussed on Munster fan forums, but he has signed for the Blues for next year. The talk in NZ was that if he did head abroad, it would have been to join his mate Mils Muliaina in Japan.

Verdict: Probably a pipe-dream all along

James Downey: agricultural bosher who turned into Sonny Bill Williams after side-stepping Dorce in the HEC final. Unlikely to reach such heights again. Would be a good move for James Downey, Irish rugby, Leinster, Ulster and Connacht .. but not Munster.
Verdict: Ooooooooooooooooohhh

Jean de Villiers: yes, we know he never learned the words to “Stand Up and Fight” first time out. Yes, we know he didn’t impress Micko. No, he didn’t drink in Jirry’s pub. Normally, those are the top 3 criteria. But if we allow for rugby ability, JdV would have fitted the bill. But he has re-signed for the Stormers.
Verdict: Don’t look back in anger, we heard you say

Three from left field:

Paddy Wallace: Stop sniggering at the back! We have been through this before. Paddy is emphatically not an outhalf, but he is experienced and a top-notch distributing centre, which is exactly what Munster need. Granted a 10-12 axis of Rog-Paddy does look a little flimsy, but for 2/3 of Ireland’s Grand Slam campaign, it worked, albeit back when O’Leary was good and Wally wasn’t 35. Plus Luke Marshall might be wearing the Ulster 12 shirt very soon.
Verdict: Not likely, but should be considered
Felipe Contepomi: How funny would this be? Who knows, Stade’s finances could collapse again, freeing Conters up for a move back to Ireland.  And Quinny has retired now. Although Rog hasn’t.
Verdict: Ligind in the making

Gavin Henson: Would blend right into the Munster shirt, thus offering invaluable cover for actual rugby players. Not sure how the waxing would go down in Moyross, but Gav will take anything going and if this drags on any longer Munster will get desperate.
Verdict: About as welcome in Limerick as the Orange Order

One thing’s for sure though: whoever arrives had better be a lover of theatre, because Axel has block booked a whole season’s worth of seats for the lucky man to see that play about 1978, so he knows Munster history.

Crazy coaching

So, Sarries are basing their scrum-half selection for the Premiership final on a coin-toss. Professional. It all got Whiff of Cordite thinking – what other moments when coaches lost their minds can we recall?
  1. In the opening game of the 2009 6 Nations, Nick Mallet picked openside flanker Mauro Bergamasco at scrum half against England. Not Mallett’s finest hour, it must be said. Frankly crazy, didn’t work, and unfair on a great player.
  2. Lesley Vainikolo. After just 9 games of union and 6 tries (5 of them against Leeds), the Sunday Times unleashed a double page spread by the reliably lunatic Stephen Jones (Headline: “Next Big Thing”). Sure enough, he was railroaded into the England team. Toe-curlingly awful – he could barely catch or pass and seemed unfamiliar with the rules.
  3. Clive Woodward on NZ Lions tour 05 – Woodward went a bit mad on the Lions tour, recruiting Alistair Campbell, posting Power of Four wristbands to the players and, of course, picking the entire England team of ’03. And Charlie Hodgson.
  4. Ceri Sweeney overlooked for Gav Henson on the Welsh bench at Lansdowne Road in 2006. Cue Stephen Jones injury, while playing beautifully, and a man who could barely run a club game from 10. Dire.
  5. We were going to laugh at the time Lievremont picked Sea-bass Chabal at 7, but we thought we had better broaden it to any time Lievremont picked Chabal. Or is it the sponsors picking him?
  6. Remember RWC11, when Uncle Deccie brought John Hayes? Utterly unfair on the man, he got caned against Russia. A sad way for a great career to end.

What other coaching lunacy have we missed?

Will they never learn?

Danny Cipriani’s latest antics for the Melbourne Rebels saw him left behind for their trip to South Africa for two Super 15 games. It seems that both his management and teammates at the Australian franchise have already lost faith in him, just halfway through his first season down under. The story comes hot on the heels of two of rugby’s other serial morons getting in a spot of bother: step forward Gavin ‘Agent Orange’ Henson at Toulon and Andy ‘Golf Cart’ Powell, at Wasps (he will be at Sale next season).

The story made us wonder if for certain personalities the lessons of times past can simply never be learned. For most Level II Morons, the penny eventually drops, usually resulting in a lifetime of full-page newspaper articles on the theme of growing up, harsh lessons learned and so forth. But for Cippers, Gav and Andy it appears that no matter how many wise old sages attempt to beat some sense in to them, they are destined to be remembered for their misdemeanours rather than their sporting achievements. The time is surely beckoning, even for the immensely gifted Cipriani (whatever about the ‘talents’ of the other two), where professional clubs will decide that the gamble of hiring their services simply isn’t worth it.