What The Fans Want

So finally, the saga is over. The HEC is gone, and will be replaced by the RCC, with a sop ‘E’ at the start to appease the likes of us who resent giving the moneymen full control of rugger. Qualification will be Mastercard merit-based, with six teams from Le Top Quatorze and the Ooooooooooooooohh Boshiership, seven teams from the Pro12 (including one from each country) then a playoff winner, initially featuring the seventh placed teams in England and France.

More importantly, there is a bigger pot for the clubs in England and France, which is being paid for by … us! Because if you want to watch the ERCC next season, you’ll need a subscription to Sky and BT – excellent news… for them. In the race to pat the backs of the club-owners it seems to have been forgotten that ‘TV money’ doesn’t just fall off a tree, it is paid by TV viewers.

Ultimately, it’s a big win for the English (and to a lesser extent, the French) clubs, who’ve pretty much been given everything they asked for; redistribution of monies, tournament structure and the running of the competition.  Governance is re-vamped, with the commercial side being run by the clubs, and the organisation itself by the unions.  Ultimately, who knows how this carve-up will work?  It’s a big unknown.  The Amlin will become the ERCC2 – the first C stands for Challenge – and will feature the remaining clubs, provinces and regions from the three leagues who don’t qualify.

How about the provinces?  First, the good news, and it’s not all terrible.  For a start, at least there is some European rugby to play, which didn’t always look certain.  And for another, meritocratic qualification from the Pro12 may have been the red herring on which the whole ugly saga was founded, but it is ultimately a positive.  It’s hard to envisage a situation where the Big Three from Ireland won’t qualify, for the next few years at least and it won’t be beyond Connacht to squeeze into the last spot.  If the Welsh regions can get their house in order to be sufficiently competitive, then things might get a little heated around the middle of the table, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  The Pro12 stands to benefit.

The bad news?  Well, the biggest fear has to be that the tournament is now designed to service the clubs who’ve fought so vehemently, and at times underhandedly, for the changes.  Sure, Munster are needed to provide the showpiece games to draw in the punters (Sky have perfected the Hiberniores Hibernis ipsis tearful Saturday night Thomond Park narrative to such an extent that it has become one of the tournaments signatures), but they’re going to become a bauble that the English use to bump up prime-time telly income.  The English clubs long for the type of power and ability to attract players enjoyed by the Top Quatorze teams, and this at least moves them a step closer.  The IRFU have done a fine job in minimising the flight to France in the wake of a number of high-profile contract renewals this season, but if the English were to join in the bidding wars, it won’t make things any easier. Aside: one wonders, based on the importance of the provinces to the European cup (in terms of rugby and TV – they often occupyprime time), how hard a bargain the IRFU drove.

And, speaking of, the IRFU should have a bit of a re-think on its attitude to both investment in foreign players and its player welfare structures.  Currently, the Pro12 muddles along until the last five or six rounds, before the jostling for places begins in earnest.  Meritocratic qualification would stretch its importance out over the whole season.  If the Pro12 is to be treated as a serious business, with qualification for Europe hinging on it, then the provincial coaches will need access to their better players for more games.  This needn’t be a wholesale revision, rather a slight relaxing of the current rules.  One suggestion would be unlimited access to their full panel for the Christmas interpros, which should be high-profile, attractive matches, but end up being a phony war.  Same goes for NIE players, where the rules are continually being tightened (or so it would appear at least, it’s never all that clear).  If the Irish are to be required to fight on two fronts for the whole season then they will need the squad depth to do so. Unless of course (conspiracy theory alert) there is some dastardly plan to denude Connacht of their good players in return for B&I Cup dirt-trackers of course.

Many of the arguments put forward by the PRL owners UK media are so flimsy as to be paper-thin.  Stephen Jones tells us the club-owners are fine, manly and indeed perfectly upstanding (not to mention really, really good looking) gentlemen, who only have the best interests of their beloved rugby club at heart.  Well, they would, wouldn’t they, because they have a financial stake in them.  What about the broader game, which trickles down to grassroots level?  That’s the concern of the unions, easily painted by a willing media as a bunch of backwards-looking cigar-smoking blazer-wearing foie-gras munchers, but in reality they are the ones with the interests of the game at heart.  Handing over the reigns to the money-men is a dangerous business.

One line being peddled is that the new format will make the competition better and more competitive.  But it won’t, not by itself anyway.  Under the new structure, eight teams qualify from five pools, so now 60% of those finishing runner-up in the pool will qualify, as opposed to 33%.  The great thing about the old format was that you were required to win the pool or be reduced to hoping against hope.  The new format will have one less rubbish Italian team, but qualifying from the pool will be that bit easier and a bit more forgiving.

PRL lackey Kitson in the Grauniad triumphantly called the ERCC “a win for players and fans” – players, sure, if we count success only in pounds and euros; fans, er … no. Clearly Kitson doesn’t pay his own TV subscriptions, or give a hoot about the game for that matter. He even went as far as to call this rugby’s “1992 moment”, and celebrated the fact. Maybe he should talk to the soccer department of his own paper.  1992 was, of course, the year soccer began. Or the first year of the Premier League. Since then, player wages have gone through the roof, ticket prices have gone through the roof, many overreaching clubs have gone bankrupt, fans have become more and more alienated from their clubs, England have many less players to choose from and the best clubs are owned by oligarchs, oil barons, vulture funds and the like.

In the few years prior to 1992, Luton Town, Coventry, Wimbledon and Nottingham Forest won silverware, and Norwich, Sheffield Wednesday and Palace were in the shake up for the league title. Since then, its been dominated by the rich, who have got richer. That looks like the future for rugby in Europe, and it’s very worrying, and mighty depressing.

That Empty Feeling

Munster fans are only delighted with themselves, Ulster folk at least have a sense of injustice and great pride to fall back on, but for the RDS faithful, the only feeling is one of emptiness, after their team was deconstructed in Toulon last weekend. Going away to the bigger French teams is never easy, and there’s always a sense that if the home side can get its tails up they can pull away on the scoreboard. It wasn’t wholly dissimilar to the semi-final in Toulouse in Michael Cheika’s final season. Leinster hung on by the skin of their teeth in the first half, but a third-quarter power play took the game away from them. Everyone talks about the French sides blowing tams away from the off, but more often they fool the opposition into thinking they’re in the game before upping the ante.

Where to start? Well, we can begin by paying no attention to the garbled nonsense about which entry the players came in and focus on on-pitch events instead. The scrum and maul were fine, positives even, but the rest were not. Leinster’s attack was feeble, replete with handling errors, a 10 playing miles behind the gainline and toothless running lines. The breakdown was a veritable crime scene, with Armitage and Basteraud perpetrators of one ball theft after another. Leinster were powerless to dislodge them. And then there was the defence. What could explain so many missed first-up-tackles? When watching rugby the brain often goes into a semi-conscious auto-forecasting mode. The eyes see a player running off not-especially-fast ball at another player, and the brain gets ready for another ruck to form. The eyes may even allow themselves to become momentarily distracted. Except the next thing they see is the same player with the ball running in open country. Brain? This is not what you said would happen!

Toulon get routinely derided by the likes of Gerry as a bunch of nouveau riche arrivistes, but the reality is they are a proper club- the players and fans have a real bond, and there is none of the Saracens faux-atmospheric blaring music, only newspapers in the air and loud singing. Wilko has previously warned players seeking only a fat paycheque to look elsewhere (Paris!) and the performances of the likes of Danie Roussouw and Bakkies Botha since they arrived have shown real commitment. The Armitages were seen in the crowd bonding with fans after the game, and anyone who calls Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe a mercenary should be taken out and shot… or worse still made to say it to his face.

And whatever you think about Boudjellal, he isn’t some shadowy Abramovich figure. He is Toulon born-and-bred, a passionate supporter of RCT but a self-made millionaire with a cool business brain – he has increased turnover 6-fold and now reckons the club is self-sustaining, even with the huge wage bills of the squad. He has been the driver behind the success of Toulon, and let’s be clear, no team can win the HEC and get to the Top14 final without being a proper team, not a bunch of individual mercenaries – and when these guys play as one, at home, forget about beating them.

For all that, and if the truth be told, this was the game in which Leinster’s chickens came home to roost. They just haven’t played that well all season. Even their best performance, the all-conquering away win in Northampton, had the gloss taken off it by losing the reverse fixture a week later. Anyone who watched Leinster at home to Ospreys in the last round of the Heineken Cup, away to Munster or at home to Zebre recently will know that this is a side who have spluttered through much of the season.

One person copping a serious amount of flak in the aftermath is Matt O’Connor. In polite society, it’s traditional for a coach in his first year to get something of a free pass, but this was a season-defining match for Leinster. As Alan Quinlan put it in his column in the Irish Times, this was O’Connor’s chance to get the ‘O’Connor era’ up and running. Well he has now, but not in the way he’d have wanted. It’s a tough gig coming in after Joe Schmidt, with some aging stars and a fanbase accustomed to success, but the drop-off in the accuracy of Leinster’s play has been noticeable (while that of Ireland has improved dramatically). It can’t be coincidental. Would any Joe Schmidt side have been so comprehensively dominated at the breakdown like that? No coach can completely gameplan a player as good as Steffon Armitage out of a match, but we’d expect a Schmidt-coached side to have a specific plan to deal with a player of his calibre.

Then there’s Gopperth-gate, and the curious comments from Matt O’Connor since the match, with regard to Ian Madigan. O’Connor has admitted that Gopperth was slightly undercooked going into the game, but then why didn’t he play him against Munster the previous week? Did the IRFU insist on Madigan getting the start? Is this high-octane game not scheduled with exactly that sort of thing in mind? The subsequent criticism of Ian Madigan’s ability to ‘control the front end of the game’ confirm his lack of confidence in a player who performed superbly last season but has yet to really flourish under the current coach. It didn’t paint O’Connor in the best light, showing him to be slightly flummoxed and operating on the back foot. When O’Connor was named as coach, we listed building the team around Madigan and developing the Blackrock man’s game in the same way Schmidt did with Sexton, as one of O’Connor’s principal tasks. It hasn’t worked out that way, not yet at least.

The clamour to declare half the team past it is under way in some quarters, but there isn’t a huge amount of drastic surgery needed. Some players just played badly and there’s not much you can do about that. Toner and D’arcy had off days, but they’ve been among Leinster’s best players this season. Shane Jennings was man-of-the-match the week before, but had a really poor game. Any team would miss Sean O’Brien and he’ll be back next season. Obviously, a 13 will have to be found for next year, and the pain of Eoin O’Malley’s forced retirement has never been more acute. Luke Fitzgerald, surely, should be the first to audition.

All is not yet lost and Leinster find themselves in a good position in the Pro12. Don’t let their placing at the top of the league mask the fact that they haven’t played all that brilliantly, but it does at least give them a good chance of winning the pot, because home advantage for the semi-finals and final, when the intensity ramps up, is invaluable. Winning it is necessary to redeem the season, but with Munster, Ulster and Glasgow for company, Leinster will need to play with a good deal more structure and direction, in order to do so.

Standing Alone

The received wisdom is that Munster are supposedly the third best province in Ireland, but clearly they haven’t bothered to pay it much attention – perhaps giving belated truth to Gerry’s assertion that ‘Ulster are the better team, but Munster are the better province’. For the second year running they find themselves in the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup, carrying the hopes of the nation, while their more heralded rivals to the north and east will be watching events on their television sets. Quite the achievement given the supposed transition they are in. Sign whoever that coach is up for as long as he likes! Or ditch him and promote the local hero, whatever.

Munster swatted aside a desperate Toulouse effort over Saturday brunch in effervescent fashion. Toulouse were hanging on at half-time but two early second half tries won the game A home win always appeared likely. Toulouse were poor and didn’t appear to have any belief that they could win in Thomond Park, but to score six tries in a Heineken Cup quarter final against anyone is impressive.

More impressive still is that they did it without their captain, Peter O’Mahony. He was replaced after just 18 minutes, but this was the day CJ Stander emphatically announced himself as a Munster player. The South African backrow has had an enigmatic, slightly puzzling Munster career to date, providing brief glimpses of a rarefied talent which has had tongues wagging in the stands, but appearing to struggle to gain the faith of his coaches. Now we know what he can do. Can this be the start of something wonderful?

The two wings deserve special mention. Keith Earls looks sharp as a tack and Simon Zebo looks like he has taken Joe Schmidt’s pointers on board. Rather than sulking or whining to the media, he has come out and spoken of his determination to improve certain aspects of his game, and is doing his talking on the pitch. He scored the fifth try in the face of some pretty tepid defending, but it was all started by him doing something pretty mundane: aggressively chasing a restart. Jamie Heaslip, when he was rotated out of the team in the 2009 Six Nations, told Declan Kidney he would be 100% positive in the lead-up to the game and wouldn’t allow being dropped to negatively affect him in any way. He’d train harder than ever. In the event, he was brought on after 20 minutes and scored the winning try, and was back in the team for the final game. Simon Zebo appears to have the same attitude.

The win and the manner of it also highlighted the importance of getting a home quarter-final. Contrast with Leinster’s trip to Toulon, a similarly comfortable win for the home side. Flip the venues, though and it’s a different ball game altogether. The home-away swing effect is always big in rugby, but particularly so where the French are concerned, what with the spirit of the bell-tower and all that. Leinster will be left to ruminate on a carless defeat to Northampton Saints, having put 40 points on them the previous week.

So, on Munster march to the semi-finals, and this time they have to go away. Can they win? They won’t go down without a fight, but they look like outsiders (again) – Toulon are clear favourites in Marseille, and the reality is that Munster have had a bit of an armchair ride to this point. None of their pool opponents will be partaking in the inaugural RCC next season if the leaked qualification rules come to pass – six from each league (including one from each Rabo country), one from the HEC/RCC champions league, and the winner of a Franglais playoff. Contrast with all three of Ulster and Leinster’s pool opponents likely to be back (admittedly Treviso by default). Of all eight quarter-finalists, Toulouse are the only ones hanging on to qualify, clinging on to the final French automatic spot. Here’s hoping their excellent pack and brilliant outside backs can trouble the beastly behemoth Toulonnais the same way they troubled the bosh-happy behemoth Toulousain.

Three Becomes One

Gerry was predicting all three Irish provinces were going to progress this weekend, but in a potentially important weekend looking forward to the RCC, it’s moneybags Globo Gym and Toulon who join Munster and Clermont in the semi-finals – the same lineup as last year, and a real credit to Rob Penney to keeping Munster in such august (and far wealthier) company.

If Toulon beat Leinster in an awesome display of power, skill and depth; Saracens were blessed to defeat Ulster on Saturday night, almost letting a 76 minute man advantage slip.

The biggest pity about Jared Payne’s sending off on Saturday night was that it effectively decided what looked like a delicious contest after just four minutes – Saracens’ ineptitude on the game management and place-kicking front allowed Ulster to hang in there, and almost nick it, but it was a nigh-impossible task to win with 14 men for virtually the entire game. Add in injuries for Besty and Pienaar and it’s a minor miracle Ulster were even in search of a drop goal in the closing phases. For that they have to thank an oddly subdued Sarries – Owen Farrell again got the yips when the pressure was on (see Park, Thomond, tearful Saturday night edition, 2012), they seemed content to let Ulster have the ball despite the excellent ball retention on display, and the few times they used the full spaces on offer they scored tries – and the errant boots of their halfbacks.

Billy Vunipola and Schalk Brits were excellent and carried the team, but Farrell and Hodgson offered very little. We won’t talk about Chris Ashton again, but his bird-brained swan dive made Farrell’s first conversion more difficult than it needed to be – it would have been just reward if that proved the difference between winning and losing, but, sadly, the width of a post on Wee PJ’s first penalty determined that one.

Ulster’s remaining 14 men and substitutes were heroic (and arm-wavingly frustrating in one case – no wonder Pienaar remained on the pitch for so long despite an inability to pass the ball) and couldn’t have done much more, but since Payne’s card was the defining moment it is worth dwelling on it for some time. As per usual, the reaction ranged from the moronic (‘Sure Goode was walking around by half-time, clearly wasn’t badly injured, not even a penalty’) to the opportunistic (‘Sure the game had barely started and he didn’t intend Goode to fall on his head, so it’s a penalty and no more’) to the disciplinarian (‘All tackles on English yeoman should be punished by red – why, back in the day these colonials weren’t even allowed to pass a gentleman on the street without a cap-doff’). But it’s worth diving deeper into a few of the more common lines:

  • Both Ulster and Saracens coach and captain agreed it wasn’t a red. Well, Anscombe and Muller would say that wouldn’t they, so let’s leave it there. McCall agreed, but would he have been so magnanimous if Ulster had won? Or if Payne got a yellow and scored the winning try, would he have argued Garces was right? And Borthwick chided the interviewer for not asking if Goode was ok, and more or less said Garces had the right to make that decision.
  • Payne had his eyes on the ball the whole time. This was Muller’s argument to Garces when the incident happened, and it’s undeniable. But does this invalidate any contact? The reality is that Payne made no effort to contest the ball, which is the key point when discussing recklessness – even the lamest attempt to jump would likely have downgraded the dangerous factor in the referee’s eyes. Even if Payne was looking at the ball, he was utterly reckless when it came to the safety of Goode.  His body shape in enetering the contact zone was all wrong, and that was what put Goode at such great risk.
  • The severity of Goode’s injury influenced the decision. We thought this initially, but we aren’t so sure. Sure, the sight of a man being carried off on a stretcher definitely makes the referee feel under more pressure to do something, but think about this scenario. Goode is dazed but sitting up and needed treatment to continue. Garces shows Payne a yellow straight away, then sees the replay on the big screen and summons him back for a red. Far fetched? Not really, it’s exactly what he did to Stuart Hogg in the Six Nations. We’re not saying it would have happened, but it’s definitely a possibility. Garces is a referee who does not shirk these decisions, and he could well have shown a red anyway.  At the very least, it must be accepted that Garces’ decision was based on due consideration, and not a snap-reaction or emotion, because he and the officials took an age over it.
  • There was no intent to injure. There never is, though, is there? He’s not that kind of player, you hear commentators say (except about Dylan Hartley, because he clearly is). But reckless and dangerous play can lead to injuries, and that’s what needs to be stamped out. Player safety needs to be paramount, and outright intention to injure someone (also known as common assault) is rarely the key factor in these decision, nor should it be.  Payne was reckless and dangerous

We saw the same thing after Sam Warburton dumped Vinny Clark on his head in the World Cup – amid the hot air eminating from Gatty and the compliant UK press, Elaine was accused of being “half-French” by Barnesy, and Frankie accused him of ruining the semi-final for the fans. Warbs didn’t intend to paralyse Clerc, nor did he, but his conduct is the type of dangerous play that can leave players in wheelchairs, and for that Rolland sent him off.

The Sky studio were split down the middle, with Quinnell and Greenwood arguing for red and the Irish pair going yellow – and that 50-50 split is about fair. Some referees would show red, some yellow. Garces tends to be strict and he showed red. Even if you think it should have been a yellow card, the red card outcome was definitely in play, and within reason.  We tend to see player safety as the key variable and think, on balance, a red card was just about the right call. When we first saw it, our thoughts were ‘He might just get sent off here’.  Payne will be the most devastated by the turn of events – he effectively cost his team a place in the semi-finals – and one wonders if Ulster were a little too wound up early on. It’s a terrible pity that a team of such potential, full of young Irishmen, won’t get to play for a chance of another final – their display certainly warranted it, and, given a period of transition is on its way with the departure of Court, Afoa and Muller, who knows when they will have as good an opportunity.

When you are climbing a mountain of the type Ulster needed to on Saturday everything must go right, and if Ulster put themselves in a position to win the game, they will regret four missed kicks. When we saw Pienaar, broken wing and all, lining up the first kick at goal, we were screaming at the TV – it was pretty obvious he wasn’ t lasting the 80, so why not give PJ the duties from the start? Pienaar didn’t kick well, and Jackson was left with a sighter in the second half – which hit the post. Them is the margins. Not much went right for Ulster on the night, and Payne’s stupidity was only one part of it. Some day my friends .. some day.

PS. Worry not, Munster fans, we’ll be talking about your team’s awesomeness next.  And sorry, Leinster fans, but we may have to have a chat about events on the south coast of France later in the week, too.

Away We Go

The Heineken Cup quarter finals are imminent. It’s always hard to see past the home sides in these games, and traditionally home advantage holds a big sway, but there’s usually one team able to overturn expectations and pull off a win on the road. Last year it was Munster, who were unfancied going to Harlequins but raised their intensity to levels Quins couldn’t deal with. The year before that it was Ulster, who went and sacked the Thomond Park fortress in a remarkable game. Which of the four look the most likely this time?

  1. Toulouse, at Munster. It’s increasingly hard to see Toulouse pulling off a result in this match. Their away form has been dismal all season and there are doubts over Louis Picamoles and Yannick Nyanga and Dusatoir is still injured. With the likes of Medard, Fickou, Huget and Poitrenaud in their backline they should be one of the most exciting teams around, but it never really comes to fruition. If you’re wondering why, the clue might be in their half-backs. Jean-Marc Doussain is a scrum half in the Tomas O’Leary mould – picked for his physicality, he lacks mobility and intuition. Simply put, he’s a poor player for a club of this stature. Luke McAllister is a great footballer, but not a great 10 or a great place-kicker. Ulster showed that you can still win in Thomond Park even if your 10 plays rubbish, but only if your nine makes up for him. Can’t see that happening here, with the caveat that Toulouse’ bruising pack ground down Globo Gym once they were let into the game. If Munster whack and bag them early, tears will flow.
  2. Leicester Tigers, at Clermont. Nobody wins at the Stade Marcel Michelin, and Leicester, for all their undoubted awkward toughness and never-say-die attitude, do not look quite good enough to break what has been an incredible winning streak at home. Clermont are just too good, and their annual choke doesn’t usually get started until later. Leicester came up short in both games against Ulster, despite throwing everything at them and a similar outcome here feels inevitable. Having Tuilagi back in the fold is great news for them, and don’t expect Leicester to give Clermont anything cheap, but even if it’s tight, Clermont will pull through in the end.
  3. Saracens, at Ulster. The new Ravenhill is ready. Are Ulster? They look to have gone the old Munster route, throwing in a careless Pro12 defeat the week before the game, which gives Anscombe plenty of scope to kick them up the rear and get minds focused on the game ahead. Assuming Pienaar is fit, they’ve a pretty full deck to choose from. Even Ferris could feature, presumably as part of a double-whammy with Iain Henderson with 20 minutes to go. But what of Saracens? Never the most likeable of clubs, with the odious chairman Nigel Wray spearheading the European rugby governance coup, they have at least tried to broaden their game this season. They always looked to have the players capable of playing a bit more footie than they did, especially the superbly balanced Alex Goode, and it’s working well for them; they’re top of the Premiership and top try-scorers too, averaging almost three a match. This will be a hard game for Ulster and Saracens have a reasonable chance of pulling out an away win; in truth if the away win comes from anywhere it is most likely to be here. Ulster have shown enough toughness in this competition to deserve the tip, but Saracens are confident and in good form.
  4. Leinster, at Toulon. If timing is everything, Leinster have got this one wrong. Before the Six Nations, Bernard Jackman, the resident expert on all things French rugby, saw no reason why Leinster couldn’t win, citing Toulon’s shoddy morale, poor coaching, infighting and mediocre results as evidence. Roll on a few weeks and Toulon have put together five wins out of six in the Top 14 and the juggernaut appears to be pointing in the right direction. Heck, they’ve even won an away game! In the Top 14! Sacre bleu! As for Leinster, they’re just not playing well enough to be confident of getting what would be a remarkable win. Their greatest wins have been based on the twin pillars of accurate passing and near-feral clear-out; neither have been in much supply this season. Doubts remain over who will play at fly-half and whether the selected player can deliver. We’d have guessed Jimmy Gopperth was favourite, but it looks like O’Connor may feel his best chance is to approach this game as he would a home tie and play at as high a tempo as possible against what is a huge, but not overly mobile Toulon pack. So we’re expecting Jennings, Reddan and Madigan all to be in the starting team. Leinster still look to be dining out on their performance in Northampton this year and something of the same order is required here. Being Leinster, they can’t be ruled out but it’s a tall order. A home win looks the more likely.

Forgive the blandness of the opinion, but four home wins looks the most probable outcome, which would give us a semi-final line-up of Ulster-Clermont and Toulon-Munster. Both have met in recent years, with Ulster likely to look back with fonder memories. Clermont’s flakiness under pressure and poor record in Ireland would lead you to hesitate picking Clermont, but still, a repeat of last years final is a distinct possibility, and any winner other than Toulon would be a mild surprise.  The winner of Toulon-Leinster becomes tournament favourite.

Time to Get a Move On

For all the jolliness around Irish rugby right now, for a handful of players this season has been one frustration after another. And things could be about to get more frustrating for some of them when the teams are announced for the Heineken Cup knockouts this weekend.

Despite knocking Paddy Jackson off the bench for the final round of the Six Nations, this has not been a campaign to remember for Ian Madigan. After two years of huge gains, the departure of Jonny Sexton looked set to hand him the breakthrough he needed, but instead Madigan has found himself struggling to oust the less heralded Jimmy Gopperth. Gopperth is a fine player and has numerous strengths, but if Madigan was playing like he did last season he’d be starting all the big matches. He just hasn’t got going yet. Every time we see him inked into the starting team for a home game we get the feeling his season is about to spark, but so far it hasn’t really happened. He played well enough against Munster, but his kicking game remains loose and his superb gainline passing hasn’t been in as much evidence this year, with O’Connor appearing to play him deeper behind the gainline. For the Toulon game, Jimmy Gopperth is probably slight favourite to get picked.

Another who has only played in fits and starts this season is Kevin McLaughlin. Injury hasn’t helped, but his form since returning has been spotty to say the least. He was a weak-ish link against Munster, and the memory of his explosive 20 minutes against New Zealand has receded somewhat. He wasn’t involved in even the training squads for the Six Nations, and now has to contend with a new sheriff in town at Leinster in Rhys Ruddock. Ruddock is a 6 in the Simon Easterby mould, a good lineout catcher who gets on with the ‘unseen work’ of carrying slow ball and clearing out rucks, and if fit is likely to be selected ahead of McLaughlin. With Jordi Murphy and Shane Jennings vying for the No.7 shirt, McLaughlin could find himself outside the 23 altogether.

Meanwhile, up in Ulster, they have their backline all fit (apart from Olding) for the first time in a long time. Bowe and Trimble are undroppable and Marshall plays 12. One has to miss out between Craig Gilroy and Darren Cave, with Jared Payne able to switch between 15 and 13. This weekend, it was Cave who got selected. He’s been one of Ulster’s most consistent players this season and while the clamour to get Payne into the 13 shirt has some, shall we say, external motivators, Ulster are still best served by him playing 15. It means Gilroy loses his starting place. It’s been a difficult year for Gilroy, who, like Madigan, just hasn’t really sparked into life. His exceptional performance against Argentina in 2012 underlined his explosive talent, but he hasn’t been able to replicate it since then. And where has the scoring nous gone?  He scored eight tries in 14 appearances in his first season, but the well has dried up. He managed just one last year and three this, last scoring in mid-December.

Down south, Donnacha Ryan could do with catching a break. He was one of the best players in the country in 2012, but has since then gone from injury to injury. A lacklustre 2013 Six Nations which he appeared to play through an injury scuppered his Lions chances and since then he’s had a pretty stop-start time of it. Now he’s once again doubtful for the game against Toulouse. He’d be a big loss to Munster, because Donncha O’Callaghan is no longer at this level and it’s a sizeable step down to Dave Foley. In the meantime, Devin Toner has cemented his place in the Ireland team, and next year should be a breakthrough for Iain Henderson, with Muller retiring. The heat is on. Schmidt’s singling of Ryan out for his work on the training paddock was a reminder of how highly he is regarded, and rightly so, but he needs an unbroken run of games to build some momentum.

Enter Axel

We joked back in May 2012 that “Penney is … a sacrificial lamb who will get to soak up all the ire of the fans by continuing Ludd’s work of the last 18 months and retiring the Liginds one by one and then buggering off to let Axel take over once the newbies have been transitioned in”.

Well, looks like we were right. While Penney was offered only a one year contract (technically, an optional extension), Axel is getting two, with an option of one more. Not that there is anything wrong with that in and of itself. Rugby is a business and its incumbent upon the chief executive(s) of any business to put in place the management/leadership structure that leads to the most success. If the Munster hierarchy have decided that Axel is better placed than Penney to deliver what Munster ultimately need (silverware) then they have their man in place.  Now he just has to go and do it.

Penney was brought in largely because of his work in Canterbury at underage and development level, and was charged with bringing the likes of Tommy O’Donnell, Mike Sherry and Peter O’Mahony up to Heineken Cup level and restore the team’s playing identity.  Much of that has been done, and he leaves Munster in a much better place than when he took over.  Axel Foley takes over a team with a winning mentality and a core of good players who will be around for years to come.  The core of his pack are of the right age profile, and where there are a couple of old lags in wind-down, succession looks to be being managed.  Paul O’Connell will be around until 2016 and BJ Botha will still be here next season and when he does retire, Stephen Archer should be ready to take over (presuming his development over the last 12 months continues).  Dave Foley has stepped up the rungs to ease O’Callaghan further out of the picture and Robin Copeland should smoothly take over from the evergreen James Coughlan, who continues to be productive.

The half-back situation is also positive, with Hanrahan on track to take over from Ian Keatley, and Penney has been wise not to rush this process.  He’ll be ready when he’s ready, and he’s having a fine campaign in the Pro12 in the meantime.

His main issue- as is the case for seemingly every Munster coach since the year dot – will be recruiting and developing capable centres to provide a threat and most importantly, bring the lethal strike runners Simon Zebo and Keith Earls onto the ball as much as possible.  Casey Laulala is heading for the exit and it looks increasingly like James Downey will be joining him.  Foley will need to recruit, and recruit well.

The real fascination will lie in what direction Foley will take the team.  Will he tear up the current script and start anew?  Or is he a ‘continuity’ man As tempting as it is to see the move as a coup d’etat on Foley’s part, it’s unlikely to be the case.  The other temptation is to buy the stereotype of Foley as the ultimate old-school Munster forward who will bring their game back to the dark ages.  “We’ve had 10 man rugby, now you’re playing 9-man rugby – when will this end?”  “When we find a number eight that can kick.”  But that looks over-simplified; Foley was a smart rugby player who got by on his ability to read of the game, and presumably brings those qualities to the table as a coach.

However, it does seem unlikely that he’s a disciple of Penneyball in all its wonderful purity.  He poured cold water on Ger Gilroy’s attempts to get him to say Munster’s success wasn’t always forward oriented on Newstalk last night. But while Munster never looked totally comfortable with Penney’s gameplan, it was hard to see exactly how else they could succeed.  Their pack isn’t really capable of grinding others into the dirt, but is big on mobility and athleticism.  The centres rather than the forwards were the main obstacles to it succeeding.  It’s probably the end to the idea of Donncha O’Callaghan hanging out on the wing looking for the ball, but hopefully some of the spirit of dynamic forward play will be retained.

He should also benefit from much goodwill from the public and media.  As a very fondly remembered player (the Leinster fans’ forum includes Axel Foley in every poll as a reference to Munster fans voting for him in every ‘greatest ever’ list), and the only Irish head coach at provincial level, the Munster faithful will be fully behind him, and he should have no trouble with a meeja who have been campaigning for him to get this gig since before Rob Penney took over.  This is one coach everyone wants to see succeed.  But as every coach knows, it’s a different pressure being the top man than one of the coaching team.

Let’s hope one of the brightest young Irish coaches around can build on Penney’s groundwork – and by Gawd it’s nice to see an Irishman coaching one of the provinces.

Are Ulster the new Munster?

Ulster fans will not have been surprised to note that the headline of the Irish Times on Monday was not about the best game of the group stages, an epic sack of Welford Road, but about a potential Leinster-Munster semi-final should both prevail against French nouveau riche™ and aristocrats™ respectively.

Nor will they have been surprised to see under-representation on the ERC Player of the Year long list published yesterday – Ulster were the only group winner to have a single nomination, with four others getting two each and Toulon getting three for sleepwalking through a gimme pool. Ulster recorded four wins against quarter-finalists of last years tournament (two away from home) and were left with the same number of nominees as also-rans Northampton Saints. Miles Benjamin got one for Gawd’s sake.

This isn’t to say any of the 15 are obviously undeserving candidates, all had a good pool stages, but did all 15 have a greater influence on the pool stages than, say, Chris Henry?

Further, Ulster were described as “most improved” on Second Captains – where we went to school, “most improved” was a pat on the head for the guy or girl who wasn’t at the races but needed a bit of encouragement to keep the head up.

In truth, Humph probably won’t mind this one bit – Ulster are slowly adjusting to their new status in Irish rugby, a status where Munster and Leinster enjoy the lion’s share of column inches, Ireland caps and profile. It used to be said in the 80s that Ulster players got easy caps (ask Ger Earls, something of a cause celebre in his day) – not any more. This well of bitterness that is building up within the Ulster team and support is something Deccie tapped very effectively when Munster coach – in his first stint, he would refer to Francois Pienaar’s Saracens as “the Man United of rugby” and talk about how Toulouse had no respect for Munster. The pats on the head about passion became condescending enough that Munster decided to do something about it – by hoovering up silverware.

Ulster look like they are heading the same direction – their under-representation (percieved or otherwise) on Joe Schmidt’s Ireland team during the Six Nations is likely to be an advantage come April, and the sense of grievance will be a powerful motivator for players and fans as the season goes on.

Epic

Ulster did what Egg so emotionally implored them to do, and played the music with vigour on Saturday night – not panicking when 6 points down in the first half, then stepping up the intensity when 10 down in the second – the Ulstermen played with such power and poise that Leicester were simply shut down in a ground in which they hadn’t lost a European game in seven years (we can’t remember who last beat them but it may have involved a heroic 50m kick into driving rain that had Barnesy choking on his Beaujolais), incorporating games against the best in Europe in that period. Chris Henry showed why Joe Schmidt paid such attention to him when Leinster coach, Roger Wilson showed why Darren Cave thinks he is as good as Jamie Heaslip, Ruan Pienaar added the finishing touches and Besty the finesse with the boot.

Every scrap, metre and loose ball was vigorously fought for and the margin of victory was always going to be slim.  Leicester were getting weaker as the game went on, with injuries taking their toll, and Ulster were getting stronger thanks to an impact-stacked bench.  Iain Henderson is arguably among the players of the pool stages without starting a game.  Would 80 minutes be too long for Leicester to hold on or too short for Ulster to get ahead on the scoreboard?

In the end it was long enough for Ulster to manufacture the winning scores and see out the game.  Journeys to greatness are made of such wins – just ask the great Leinster and Munster sides.  Heineken Cups are won not just in the finals themselves but in the heart-stopping landmark away wins that foster belief and togetherness.

It was an epic contest, a classic of the Heineken Cup genre – the first really unforgettable match of this year’s less than vintage tournament.  The Globo Gym-Toulouse game came close but was a bit too boshtastic. In previous years, there have been multiple games like this throughout the pool stages, but the decline in quality of the middle tier has left this years tournament pretty bereft – it took two of the big boys to produce the defining game of the pool stages.

Looking forward from here, Ulster will fancy themselves to beat Globo Gym in front of the new Ravers stands. They won’t be over-represented on Joe Schmidt’s Ireland selections (which will help them keep that store of bitterness going), and have impressive togetherness as a group. The Saracens won’t go away easily though and should not be underestimated, but the idea of shoving Chris Ashton’s swallow dive form last season up his hoop should provide further motivation, as if any were needed.  Sarries aren’t quite the boshers of yore (we’re still calling them Globo Gym though) and have expanded their game this year, recognising that their brand of hoof-and-run was not enough to beat the very best teams.  It’s bringing the best out in them, and in truth they always had players capable of playing a bit: Charlie Hodgson, David Strettle and especially the quicksilver Alex Goode and outside centre Schalk Brits.  He’s an outside centre, right?

[Aside: speaking of Globo Gym, the sight of Rodney Ah Here being mashed by Mako Vunipola, who himself was mashed by Ben Alexander, was rather unedifying to say the least.  His contribution around the park wasn’t too impressive either.  His first two carries saw him shunted backwards and then turned over.  And as one poster on a rugby fan forum said last week ‘he is capable of being equally out of breath after five minutes on both sides of the scrum’. We’d love to know the logic for bringing him into the Ireland squad – maybe his tackle bag holding is even better than Darren Cave’s.]

If the pool stages were a bit humdrum, at least the knockout games are exquisitely poised.  While Gerry is understandably drooling over the prospect of more interprovincial blood-letting a Leinster-Munster semi-final, it’s Toulon who will be happiest with that draw – being home (or in Marseille) in a semi-final is a huge motivator. Leinster will do very well to overcome the absence of the two pillars of their back-to-back HECs, Johnny Sex-bomb and SOB, and Toulon is a very hard place to win. Munster’s pack is possibly the most technically proficient left in the competition, but they are facing a Toulouse side who went to the Globo Gym and faced down a beefy pack – this one will be trench warfare, and it’s even possible Toulouse will try to tackle the marauding Munster forwards, unlike Embra.  It has the makings of a classic match.  Neither side is as good as when they last met in 2008, but both know how to fight to the death.

Likewise, Ulster won’t fear Clermont (or Leicester, in theory) in the Aviva if they negotiate the obstacle course that is the Saracens centre partnership – if that game does come to pass, it will likely come down to Clermont’s mental strength under pressure. It hasn’t been their strongest suit of recent years, and we just can’t pick them to win a big semi-final away from the Michelin.  For all the Clermont-worship that goes on, they still aren’t the world’s greatest team on the road.

So, if we were calling it now, we’d say an Ulster-Toulon final is in prospect, but the knockouts are often like a different tournament – so the usual health warnings apply. In fact, let’s face it, we’re getting miles ahead of ourselves.  The tracks are dry and there is the small matter of a Six Nations in between, so the physical and mental wellbeing of the players can be completely different when April comes around.  Leinster barely scraped out of their group in 2009, but the other side of a Grand Slam they went on to win the Cup.  Let the interprovincial blood-letting battle commence!

Play The Music

Ulster have come a long way in a short period of time – they were rubbish for the four years from 2006-10 and it was terrible – no offence to Connacht (note: Connacht will be offended), but scrapping around for the third Irish HEC place is not where Ulster want to be, or see themselves. Since 2010, they have gradually got their act together, and improved performances have seen some increasingly fun European experiences:

  • In 2010/11, they did the double over Oooooooohh Bath, getting the ‘win on English soil’ monkey off their backs in the process. A last-minute penalty from iHumph in a mudbath in Ravers against Biarritz sealed a quarter-final place for the first time in 12 years. When they got there, they were out-boshed by Courtney Lawes, who looked a world beater, and ground down by the Saints. This was a very different Ulster team from the current one, with half the team (mostly the backs) having been replaced – Adam D’Arcy and Simon Danielli started the Saints game *shudders* as did Nevin Spence .. RIP
  • The next season, they got a stinker of a draw – Clermont Auvergne and Leicester. Missing out on a bonus point in Welford Road looked terminal, but a thumping bonus point win in Ravers turned things around. Other results meant they didn’t need anything from the Auvergne when they went there, but they nearly turned over the bananamen. Last spot in the QF rankings was good enough for a trip to the six-and-oh Brave and Faithful – its one of the pecularities of Irish rugby that Ulster always fancy themselves (and often deliver) against Munster. They won that day on the back of a spectacular Craig Gilroy try, some long-range boots from Ruan Pienaar and iHumph and loads of tackles against a Munster-side in the worst throes of the McGahanBall era. The semi-final was when Wee PJ was dumped in, and Embra were beaten, if not too impressively. In the final, a Leinster team at the zenith of the powers proved too much
  • Last year, the next step was to win a pool – and they got help in the form of a favourable draw involving Glasgae, the Saints and Castres. Win the pool they did, at a canter, but a careless home defeat after smashing Northampton away (sound familiar, Leinster fans?) cost them a home quarter-final. They had to travel to Vicarage Road Allianz Park Wembley Twickenham to face Globo Gym, and got boshed out of it up front – that loveable scamp Chris Ashton swan-dived to score the victory-sealing try on the hour mark (never mind the seven missed tackles, just enjoy the showboating)

Ulster have clearly progressed – they have scraped through as runners-up, then powered through as runners-up, then wobbled through as group winners – and qualifying for the knockouts with a week to spare is a result, particularly given this yer’s pool. And yet, a fourth away quarter final on the spin would feel stagnant – to continue their upward trend, they need to win this pool. And to do that, they need to beat Leicester.  On two occasions in this pool Ulster have shown a lack of ruthlessness, which could have expensive consequences; in allowing Leicester escape from Ravenhill with a losing bonus point, and in failing to score the fourth try in the final 20 minutes against Montpellier.  On both occasions, Ulster were dominant, but made to pay for a lack of killer instinct in the opposition’s 22, with too many visits to the red zone failing to convert into points – a failing they just can’t shake off.

Welford Road is not a place opposing teams win very often, but then again, a Leicester team like this isn’t seen very often either. This isn’t the Leicester of Johnno, Neil Back and Geordan Murphy; nor is it even the Leicester of Castro, Tom Croft and Oooooooooh Alesana Tuilagi – this is the Leicester of Neil Briggs, Sebastian de Chaves and Jamie Gibson. This Ulster team has grown increasingly chippy and together as time has gone on – the Nevin Spence experience brought them close as a group, and the perception within the team that they aren’t getting due reward at international level is driving a bitterness that, if channeled correctly (see Deccie’s first stint in charge of Munster for some classic examples of the genre) can bring a team on .. or overload it with negative emotion if handled incorrectly.

After losing two knockout games to English teams in the last three years, it’s high time Ulster delivered in a game like this – they have the team, they have the players, they have the experience, and it’s time to just do it. Munster and Leinster both won classic games in England en route to silverware, and now Ulster have a golden opportunity to follow suit and vault themselves into the real top tier of Europe. Win the match and they finish the pool with six wins and are top seeds in the quarter final draw, staring down a home quarter-final against, erm, probably Leicester.  Let’s finish with an apt quote: “You can play the notes. Someday, you might be able to play the music” – Roger Ebert.

Time for Ulster to start playing the music.