The Clermont of Ireland

Ulster’s long wait for a trophy continues, after another heart-breaking loss – this time to Glasgae in Scotstoun. Ulster have made it a bit of a speciality to lose knockout matches in ever more imaginative fashion, and this one was the worst yet. The 2013 Pro12 final was largely acknowledged as pretty unlucky – Leinster were the better team on the day (and, admittedly, one of the best teams in Europe), and their experience told. Still, Ulster didn’t help themselves then, showing a distinct lack of composure when it mattered .. something that sounds familiar now.

Last year, they stepped out to an absolutely boiling Ravers … and managed to get Jared Payne sent off after 4 minutes. They nearly won, but then again – they didn’t. We, unlike most of Ireland, thought it was a red card, but whatever you think about that – Ulster lost largely through losing a man so early.

This year, after 70 minutes, the game was locked down. Ulster, though only 5 points ahead on the scoreboard, were well on top all over the field – Glasgow were desperate and one more score and it was over. What happened?

  • Dumb Penalties: ah yes, the familiar Irish refrain – someone else’s fault. Gerry today demanded that Clancy be held to account for giving a penalty to Glasgow for Ricky Lutton high-arming Matawalu. He also claimed Owens would not have given the penalty, which is rubbish. Sure, Matawalu embarrassed himself and Glasgow by going down like an Italian in the box, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a penalty. It was, and it was so incredibly stupid at a critical stage of the game, that it still infuriates us now. And its funny – Gerry wasn’t demanding that Garces be held to account for a lopsided outcome in his favourite statistic – the penalty count – when Leinster played Bath .. would that have anything to do with the Irish team being favoured?
  • Composure: even when Glasgow did score, Ulster had 4 minutes to fashion an opportunity. Four minutes – a lifetime for the best teams. Even for above average ones – France in 2007 in Croker, Ireland in 2009 got a drop goal, Munster on countless occasions, BNZ against us on numerous recent occasions. Ulster not only didn’t get a sniff, but they barely got the ball back – they approached the task with nothing that felt like dead-eyes cold-blooded focus, more of a harum-scarum hope-for-the-best mentality. They looked defeated. Even when Glasgow insanely went for a 30% penalty kick with time already up, and inevitably gave Ulster one final, undeserved, chance – you never sensed a score was on.

The same old problems over again. You have to compare this Ulster team does pressure to how the most recent great Irish provincial side would have reacted – Joe Schmidt’s Leinster team. That team was festooned with intelligent, streetwise, shrewd and assured players – DJ Church, Ross, Cullen, Hines/Thorn, O’Brien, Heaslip, Sexton, BOD, Dorce, Nacewa, Kearney all fit that description. And they had the best coach around , who got those players to that stage. At various points early in their career, Healy and SOB were both indisciplined penalty machines – but both had got that out of their systems by that stage.

Unlike, say, Iain Henderson – NWJMB is a force of nature and one of Ulster’s best players, but he gives away too many penalties. We are pretty sure he will lose that from his game – he’s pretty laid back and intelligent, but he is still learning his trade. Dan Tuohy is another man who never seems to be able to shake off the ability to get on referee’s wrong side.  Roger Wilson is a player who is great at running into things, but lacks composure at crucial moments – you’d never mix him up with someone like Heaslip, despite what Darren Cave thinks.

Elsewhere in the Ulster pack, Besty and Henry have a huge amount of nous, brains and the ability to think clearly under pressure .. but there aren’t many other names that jump out at you from the forwards as ones you’d want on your teamsheet during squeaky bum time. Even Pienaar doesn’t have the best record when the heat is on. Ulster have the same problems they had two years ago, and they have lots of work to do this summer. Until Ulster prove otherwise, they are the Clermont of Ireland – likeable, play great rugby, but crumble under pressure.

 

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Stuart Hogg to Ulster?

The news that Stuart Hogg will play no part in the biggest game in the Glasgae’s franchise’s (ugh) history is surprising, to say the least – he’s one of the few bona fide world class players in Scotland, and should be a key man for the team.  Dress this weekend’s match up any way you like, but Leinster, for all their attacking lumpen-ness, have an excellent pack and a brilliant defensive system – and they keep winning. If Glasgae are to win, they’ll need everything going, yet they have elected to pick Peter Murchie at 15. Amid the fog and intrigue, one thing is obvious – Stuart Hogg has burned every bridge going at Glasgow.

When asked about it, Bob Kearney said:

“I don’t know him too well, great player, seems like a good lad, but there is something going on there behind the scenes. There is a reason for it and I suppose you lads will find out sooner or later.”

Cryptic, and not exactly satisfactory. Tell us more, Bob!  All kinds of rumours are flying around and that doesn’t help – it would be easy to play a dead bat, but he chose not to – what does it all mean? And not knowing him too well? They toured together for the Lions and play the same position (caveated by Hogg’s outhalf cameos in Oz) – you’d think they would know each other well enough – is there distancing there?  Are we trying to read too much into things?  What the hell is going on?!

Ulster are now being linked with a move for Hogg, and, on the field anyway, it would be a reasonable fit for them. The culture shock will be non-existent; Glasgow, Belfast, it’s the same thing, right? And sure, Ulster are stacked outside, but you can never have too many world-class players, and he would be just the type of player that might help them unlock organised defensive systems – their key weakness. Their red zone strike rate was woeful in key games this year, and Hogg might have made the difference versus Globo Gym and Leinster. There’s no substitute for all out gas and Hogg has that matched with no little skill.  He’s a potentially explosive addition.

Hogg’s arrival might put the noses of Craig Gilroy and Darren Cave out of joint a little, but maybe that can be filed under ‘good problems to have’ rather than something to be overly concerned about.  In the era of 20% injury rates, chances are they won’t miss out on too much top grade rugby in any case.  Although it may be worth asking if wee Hoggy can scrum down at tighthead, because that’s where Ulster’s biggest worries are liekly to occur next season.

Question really is this: given Humph’s experience of Ulster’s player factional implosion after 2006, does he want to bring in a guy, who at 21 has managed to alienate his coaching staff so much they would rather not pick him than maximise their chances of winning in the Oar Dee Esh? And for the IRFU, do they really want to pay to train one of their direct opponents’ best players? There’s no real precedent for this sort of signing, unless you count Simon Danielli, which of course we don’t.  Something we aren’t clear on is whether Hogg an NIQ or not – by definition, yes, but he’s more like a Kolpak player in cricket, and Ulster might reasonably think it shouldn’t impact their ability to sign “real” NIQs i.e. those from the Southern Hemisphere.  Even if he does count, because of his calibre, it’s hardly a waste of an NIQ spot.

Hogg is a gem of a player who Ulster would be very fortunate to fall into their hands, but that isn’t the really pertinent question, which relates to his availability and omission from the Warriors side.  Presumably The Humph is on the case.

Time to Front Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heineken Cup Preview: Pool 4

Teams: Castres, Ulster, Northampton and Glasgow

Mark McCafferty Unfairness Rating: totally legit.  All teams finished in the top six in their leagues.  So we can categorise this group as ‘elite’.

Preview:  Elite indeed.  It doesn’t get any more elite than Castres and Glasgow.  Castres have established themselves as consistent top six material in France and are capable of beating good teams on their home ground, but are content to trot out the reserve team in European away games.  They define French ambivalence to the H-Cup.  Nonetheless, they can be a significant factor in that they could beat one of the big boys, but are unlikely to contest the group themselves.

The same applies to Glasgow, who have had a good start to the season.  They’re third in the Pro12.  They lack the sort of hard-bitten pack to get results on the road but could easily win all their home games.

Ultimately though, this looks like a shoot-out between Northampton and Ulster.  Both teams are bubbling just below the established big boys and both are knocking very hard to make that breakthrough.  Indeed, they’ve both been finalists in the last two years, only to be smashed by the Leinster juggernaut.

Northampton imploded last season in the face of a spirit-sapping last-dash defeat in Thomond Park (we think there was a drop goal or something, but we’re not quite sure). We have concerns over their mental fortitude: a stronger side would have recognised that while they lost the game, they were still well set for qualification.  Similarly, the manner in which they lost control of Leinster in the 2011 final and failed to see out a winning position in last year’s Premiership semi-final against Harlequins suggests a team that doesn’t quite have the mental to be winners.  They’ve plenty of strengths but they’re weak at half-back, where Dickson is an arm-waving, slow scrummie who can expect to hear the phrase ‘Use it!’ a lot and neither Myler nor Ryan Lamb are matchwinners.  And with Ben Foden injured, they lack real attacking threat.

It leaves Ulster well positioned.  This will be a tough season for the Ulstermen, who have to try to deal with the tragic loss of one of their number.  However, they look the sort of tight-knit bunch, with a spine of great leaders that will be exceptionally determined to lay down something great in Nevin’s memory.  They also have the heavyweight pack and dominant set piece – the best defensive lineout in the tournament, perhaps – to go toe to toe with Northampton, and boast an impregnable home fortress where they just won’t lose.  Coming out of on top of the head-to-head with Northampton looks to be the key to qualifying.

Verdict: Ulster to qualify.  The fixtures are set up nicely for them, with Castres first and last.  They should chalk up five points at home and if there’s ever a good time to have to visit one of the French middle tier it’s in the final week of the pool stages when they’re already out and minds are distracted by the Top Quatorze.  With the benefit of last season’s experience, they Ulster can edge out Northampton over two legs and possibly even make a home quarter-final.

The Corpse is Twitching

Scottish rugby has been the sick man of Europe for the last few years.  The dismal Six Nations results, the awful rugger, the demise of the Borders, the piddling attendances and the lack of playing numbers – the feeling that Scotland will be passed out by Italy has been coming for a while now.  Sure, each of the other Six Nations have endured fallow patches, but none are as sustainedly concerning as Scotland’s.

The recent World Cup only appeared to confirm this.  The Scottish pack manned up fairly impressively, and refused to let the big, brutish fellows from Argentina and England bully them, but Lordy, their attacking play would have disgraced a half-time rugby minis match.  The simple act of passing a ball across a pitch at chest height appeared to be beyond them.  Following that, the news that leading light and poster boy Richie Gray was off to Sale – Sale! – next season was another body-blow Scottish rugby could ill afford.

But if Scottish rugby is dying, then at least there’s a twitch in it yet.  Glasgow and Edinburgh have surprised with their results in the Heineken Cup, while Glasgow are also going well in the Pro12, currently sitting in third place.  Indeed, Edinburgh have a real chance of qualifying for the HEC quarter finals – they sit on 13 points after three wins, jointly top with Cardiff, having slayed the Blues in the Scottish capital in Round Four.  Glasgow’s chances of qualification are slim, as they have the small matter of Leinster to contend with, but have nonethless performed admirably with two wins and a draw so far.  They were, admittedly, drubbed in the RDS, but these things can happen.

So where has it all gone (sort of) right?  In Embra’s case, they have one thing that Scottish rugby has lacked for eons – a genuinely threatening outside back.  Flying Dutchman Tim Visser has 13 tries already this season, three of which have come in the Heineken Cup.  He’s a similar sort of player to George North, a big, strong, quick wing, who uses his long go-go-gadget arms to great effect; he has one of the best fends in the game.  He gives them a focal point for their attack, which has plundered ten tries in four HEC games so far.

A cursory glance at the Rabo Pro12 points scorers table reveals a  Duncan Weir of Glasgae comfortably in the top spot and Embra’s Greig Laidlaw in fourth.  Weir is only 20 and a bit funny looking for a fly-half (let’s just say he’s in the Andy Goode mould of physique) but he has been racking up points at a solid rate.  Ruaraidh Jackson is now back from injury and on his case, but this can only be positive news.  Further good news for Glasgae has been the return of one Lamont (Rory) from Toulon, and imminent return of the other.  It at least partly offsets the desertion of Max Evans and Richie Gray.  For Edinburgh yesterday there was more good news, with two promising 10s, Harry Leonard and Gregor Hunter, signing new contracts.

The question is: can these good results (and positive vibes) be transferred to international level?  Predicting a Scottish revival is a risky business: the Guardian boldly predicted they’d finish second in last year’s Six Nations and ended up looking rather foolish.  The trouble is, they simply cannot score tries, and have a tendency to freeze on the big stage (see last year’s non-performance at home to Wales).  It’s instructive to note that Edinburgh’s match-winning try against Cardiff in the Heineken Cup was created by a scorching break by Nick de Luca.  de Luca has long been touted as the solution to their ills but we are still waiting to see him produce a performance of note at international level.  Unfortunately, Visser doesn’t qualify until the summer tour, so that rarest of breeds, the Scottish try, may not be spotted for a while yet.

Top of the Flops

All the silverware is still up for grabs, but for a bunch of teams, the season is already at an end. No shame in the performances of the likes of Treviso, who achieved their aim of respect at home in the Magners, or Exeter, who stayed well clear of relegation in the Premiership, but a bunch of teams will be taking home a sorry looking report card to their parents…

Glasgow Warriors
11th in Magners, 3rd in group in HEC
Having been fired to third in last season’s ML by Dan Parks’ boot and the exuberant Killer B’s, this was a depressing reversion to type. Thom Evans was badly missed, Kelly Brown left for Saracens, and injuries hampered the campaign. Little wonder Max Evans is off to Castres. The misery was compounded by Andy Robinson withdrawing several key players, including Richie Gray, from the last few rounds of the ML.

Ospreys
4th in Magners, 3rd in group in HEC
Whiff of Cordite has a confession to make. Following last season’s finale when Ospreys won in Thomond Park and clinched the title in the RDS, we erroneously thought Ospreys had located their cojones and would pose a significant threat in Europe this year. How wrong could we be? Weak-willed and negative in Europe, they blew their chance against a desperately out of sorts London Irish. In the ML, they were no better, but somehow fell over the line into fourth in spite of looking like they don’t really care. Never mind, Munster will beat them. Decline could be permanent, with Mike Philipps, Lee Byrne, James Hook and Jerry Collins off to pastures new. How long until Bowe bolts for the exit?

Stade Francais
11th in Top Catorze, Amlin finalists
Ok, they can still win the Amlin, but 11th in the Top 14 is a shameful performance for such an illustrious club. No longer the moneybags they used to be, but with the like of Parisse, Basteraud and Beauxis on the books, nobody should be looking for excuses. Primed for a clearout this summer, with a new side built in the manager’s image hopefully emerging. But, one has to wonder, has the power balance in the French capital shifted to Racing Metro?

Toulon
8th in Top 14, QF in HEC
A decent showing in their first season in Europe, but given their vast resources and extraordinary playing roster, they should be challenging for the Bouclier. The suspicion remains that their team of expensive mercenaries lack heart, and it was a pleasure to see unheralded Montpellier pip them to the playoff spot this weekend. Oh, and their brand of 10-man rugby is borderline unwatchable.

Wasps

9th in Premiership, QF in Amlin
Two words: Andy Powell.